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HARRIS: As Evgeny Kuznetsov settles in, Caps’ playoff chances improve

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ANALYSIS/OPINION:

With 23 games to play as the Capitals returned from the Olympic break, the playoff math didn't look so good. With 10 games to play going into Tuesday's home game against Los Angeles, the Caps still have some significant work to do. But making the postseason seems less daunting than it did before.

Reasons for the Caps' improved outlook are numerous, perhaps none as big as strong defense and goaltending on a difficult three-game western swing that saw the team corral five of a possible six standings points.

Also high on the list? A new face in the lineup who has shown some very impressive flashes.

Though it remains way too early to anoint him as a special player, 21-year-old Evgeny Kuznetsov is showing signs he may have to join the Nationals' Bryce Harper, the Wizards' John Wall and the Redskins' Robert Griffin III on a list of the area's most exciting young talents.

Fast company a little too soon? Perhaps. But it is not a totally unreasonable thought based on what he's shown thus far.

It took four years for Kuznetsov get here after the Caps drafted him 26th overall in the 2010 entry draft. At the very least, he's proven to be worth the wait.

The numbers aren't outrageous.

In seven games, Kuznetsov hasn't scored a goal. He has five assists, though three of them came in one game. He has done something his fellow Russian (and host) Alex Ovechkin hasn't been able to do in seemingly forever: score in a shootout. Caps coach Adam Oates sent Kuznetsov out twice in shootouts on the western trip and Kuznetsov scored twice.

What makes the early look at Kuznetsov impressive is he doesn't seem to need as much of an adjustment to the NHL as was reasonably expected after he signed with the Caps on March 8. How would he handle the speed of the NHL after playing in the Kontinental Hockey League in his home country since 2010? How would he adjust to the smaller rink in the NHL?

It would take time, we were cautioned. And it will.

But if the early returns are truly indicative of Kuznetsov's ability to adjust? Getting excited is the proper reaction.

Kuznetsov was named the game's first star after a recent 4-3 victory over Vancouver. It was the game in which he had three assists.

Oates has pledged to be careful with how he uses Kuznetsov and also spoken of the need to be patient. He's also moved him up in the lineup quickly, after starting him on the fourth line when he made his debut against the Penguins.

"Is he learning?" Oates said after the Vancouver game, as quoted by CSNWashington.com. "Yeah. I hope so. But I also want to caution myself on the 'wow' factor. I really want to caution about getting too far ahead."

Understandable. As the man running the show, Oates has to do his best to rein in the excitement and not make Kuznetsov a star before he's ready.

Doing that is our job anyway.

If you've missed what he's done thus far, queue up a computer and take a look at a couple of plays. Find the pass that set up fellow rookie Tom Wilson's goal in that Vancouver game. Find the pass that set up Joel Ward's goal in the recent game at Los Angeles that enabled the Caps to force a shootout and get a point that may prove crucial in a couple of weeks.

Or go look at either of his shootout goals. Sure, they don't count on the stat sheet but it was impressive to see him looking as comfortable and confident as he did as Oates sent him out to get the session started. For a team that had lost six straight shootouts and had struggled to get a goal in many of them, having a player it can rely on in those situations could be huge.

There's this, too: Brooks Laich is done for the regular season after groin surgery and Mikhail Grabovski has been out a while with an ankle injury. Though he returned to practice on Monday, it is unknown when he can play again and how long it will take him to be effective. That Kuznetsov can fill part of that void is a huge help.

The Caps are 4-0-1 in their past five games after losing Kuznetsov's first two games against Pittsburgh. Again, he isn't the sole reason for improved play but let's throw caution to the wind and say he's been a big part of it. It may be too little too late and the Caps may end up missing the playoffs after being a postseason participant for six straight years.

Or maybe not. What once seemed darned near impossible doesn't anymore. The Caps probably need 13 points in their final 10 games. If they get them and get in, Kuznetsov will almost certainly be a factor. If they don't? At least he provides some hope for the future.

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