Evgeny Kuznetsov takes star turn in postseason spotlight

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For years, Nicklas Backstrom was the Washington Capitals unsung hero, playing his trade in the shadow of Alex Ovechkin. Amusingly enough, Backstrom’s presence probably explains why Evgeny Kuznetsov has been able to fly under the radar.

Perhaps it’s fitting that Kuznetsov’s importance to the Washington Capitals has truly come to forefront with Backstrom on the shelf.

Either way, if you haven’t taken notice of the rising star, now would be a good time to soak it all in.

Style and substance

In some ways, it’s absurd to realize that the abundantly dynamic center didn’t get more attention.

After all, Kuznetsov is a dazzling scorer and a gifted playmaker. The 25-year-old is in the middle of the best year of his already-impressive career, setting new highs in goals (27), points (83), and leaving any concerns about playoff production in the dust. His 19 playoff points ties Ovechkin for the team lead, while he finished second behind Ovechkin’s 87 points for the regular-season lead in Washington.

You don’t need to dig deep in the stats to see that he’s a big deal, but refreshingly enough, Kuznetsov brings plenty of the personality that makes Ovechkin so much fun. Actually, he might be even more expressive and over-the-top than Ovechkin.

Kuznetsov regularly says funny things, sometimes exasperating Capitals staffers with a stray f-bomb. Much like younger Ovechkin celebrating a goal with a Hendrix-like “stick on fire” celebration, the Russian center is generating his own trademark by flapping his eagle wings. Kuznetsov even busted that out after scoring the series-clinching overtime goal against the Pittsburgh Penguins:

And if that wasn’t enough for Kuznetsov to gain Internet love, there was this “man of the people” moment:

That’s the beauty, really. Not unlike Ovechkin, Kuznetsov combines style and substance in a way that sports teams – not to mention marketers – crave.

Clutch play

Kuznetsov is currently on a five-game point streak, collecting three goals and six assists. He’s only been held without a point in three of 14 games during this outstanding 2018 Stanley Cup Playoffs run.

While it’s fair to argue that Backstrom is the better defensive player, that’s not really an insult, as the Swedish forward deservedly hovers around Selke conversations most years. Kuznetsov and Lars Eller have combined to carve up the Lightning so far, and his possession stats show that it’s not just about bounces and goals.

There’s an urge to wonder why it’s taken so long for Kuznetsov to get the kind of attention he’s beginning to receive, but it’s getting there. Consider what Barry Trotz said of the electric pivot in this Kristina Rutherford Sportsnet feature about Kuznetsov’s “creative genius.”

“If he wants to be a face of the NHL — if he really wants to — he can,” Trotz said of Kuznetsov.

That “if he really wants to” phrasing, not to mention Trotz mentioning that he’s “not Pavel Datsyuk” later on in the piece, maybe keys on some of the reluctance to truly crown Kuznetsov as a star.

Kuznetsov is at that point in his career where, fairly or not, he’s forced to silence doubters … possibly on his own bench.

From steal to stealing the spotlight

In a sense, it all stems back to his draft day.

On one hand, there’re RMNB’s anecdote about then-Capitals GM George McPhee winking in delight at selecting Kuznetsov. Even then, Kuznetsov slipping to the 26th pick of the 2010 NHL Draft seemed like a staggering drop, “Russian factor” or not. For a dash of perspective, Quinton Howden went right before Kuznetsov and Mark Visentin was selected after him at 27. Yeah, that’s the sort of steal that’s worthy of a knowing wink.

Perhaps the seeds were beginning to be planted even then: nitpicking certain elements of his game and background despite clear signs of star power. Signs that only grew brighter over time.

And, hey, those funny Getty draft portraits also provided an early preview of his personality:

via Getty

Ultimately, your opinion regarding Kuznetsov might illuminate where you stand on larger trends around the NHL.

When you’re creating as much offense as Kuznetsov does, there will often be mistakes. Sometimes glaring ones.

Luckily for the Capitals, the good heavily outweighs the bad, to the point that a keyed-in Kuznetsov can be a nauseating reality for opponents. The Tampa Bay Lightning have already experienced some of that queasiness.

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James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

Canucks’ Ilya Mikheyev to have season-ending knee surgery

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VANCOUVER, British Columbia — Vancouver Canucks right wing Ilya Mikheyev is set to have season-ending surgery on his left knee.

Canucks general manager Patrik Allvin said Friday night the 28-year-old Russian forward tore the anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee in the team’s first preseason game Sept. 25. Mikheyev will undergo surgery next week and is expected to be ready for training camp in the fall.

Mikheyev was originally listed as week-to-week with the injury and played 45 regular-season games, finishing with 13 goals and 15 assists. He scored in his final appearance Friday night, a 5-2 home victory over Columbus.

Mikheyev signed a four-year, $19 million contract as a free agent last summer.

Maple Leafs’ Matthews out at least 3 weeks with knee injury

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Toronto Maple Leafs center Auston Matthews will miss at least three weeks with a sprained knee.

The team announced the reigning MVP’s anticipated absence Friday, two days after Matthews was injured in Toronto’s victory against the New York Rangers.

Matthews is expected to miss at least six games and could be out for a few more. The timing of the injury coinciding with the NHL All-Star break and the Maple Leafs bye week prevents this from costing Matthews more time out of the lineup.

After being voted an All-Star by fans, Matthews is now out of the event scheduled for Feb. 3-4 in Sunrise, Florida. The league announced Aleskander Barkov from the host Florida Panthers will take Matthews’ place on the Atlantic Division All-Star roster.

Matthews, who won the Hart Trophy last season after leading the NHL with 60 goals, has 53 points in 47 games this season.

Caufield opted for surgery with Habs out of playoff race

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MONTREAL — Montreal Canadiens winger Cole Caufield said Friday he wouldn’t be having season-ending surgery on his right shoulder if the team were in playoff contention.

But with the Canadiens near the bottom of the Eastern Conference standings, the 22-year-old Caufield said he decided to have the surgery to protect his long-term health. The procedure is scheduled to be performed by Dr. Peter Millett on Wednesday.

“I didn’t want to stop playing,” Caufield said. “I had a couple tests done to look at it more clearly but, in the end, like it could’ve been one more fall and it could have been even worse.”

Caufield, who leads the Canadiens with 26 goals in 46 games, had three different medical opinions on his shoulder before concluding that his season was over.

“I think they’ve seen a lot more than I have and they know the differences and what they like or don’t like about it,” he said about the medical opinions. “Long term, I think this is what’s best but for sure it was tough to sit out that game against Toronto on Saturday night.”

Caufield initially felt the injury in an awkward fall during Montreal’s 4-2 loss at Dallas on Dec. 23. He said his right shoulder popped, and he replaced it himself.

Caufield felt it again in the Habs’ 4-3 loss at Nashville on Jan. 12. The club announced on Jan. 21 that Caufield would miss the rest of the season.

Caufield is nearing the end of his three-year, entry-level contract and will be a restricted free agent this summer.

All-Star Matty Beniers to miss next 2 games for Kraken

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SEATTLE — Seattle Kraken rookie All-Star Matty Beniers will miss the team’s final two games before the All-Star break after taking a big hit from Vancouver’s Tyler Myers earlier this week.

Seattle coach Dave Hakstol said after morning skate Friday that Beniers would not play Friday night against Calgary or Saturday against Columbus. Hakstol did not speculate on Beniers’ availability for next weekend’s All-Star Game in Florida.

The team has not specified what kind of injury Beniers sustained from the hit. He was barreled over by Myers away from the play early in the second period in Wednesday’s 6-1 victory over Vancouver. Myers was penalized for interference on the play. Beniers returned briefly for one shift later in the period but did not play in the third period.

Beniers is Seattle’s lone All-Star selection this season. He leads all rookies in goals (17) and points (36), and is fifth in total ice time for rookies.

Seattle also placed defenseman Justin Schultz on injured reserve and recalled forward Max McCormick from Coachella Valley of the AHL. Hakstol said Schultz is improving but there’s no timeline on his return.