- The Washington Times - Thursday, April 14, 2016

Evgeny Kuznetsov never watched the Stanley Cup Playoffs while growing up in Russia. For much of his youth, games weren’t available; it wasn’t until in recent years, when the NHL started to stream them online, that his family could access them.

Kuznetsov’s first impressions of the caliber of playoff hockey, then, weren’t formed until he took part in the Washington Capitals’ first-round series against the New York Islanders a year ago. It was a quick indoctrination — both for Kuznetsov and the rest of the country, who grew acclimated to the center’s play during his eye-opening postseason.

“I think when you have success in the playoffs, I think it elevates your game for the next year,” coach Barry Trotz said Thursday morning, hours before the Capitals were to begin their first-round playoff series against the Philadelphia Flyers. “I think it gives you extreme confidence, and you go all summer feeling good about yourself and where your career is going. I think it gives you a lot of benefit to having a real good playoff. … It’s a time when you can make a name for yourself.”

Kuznetsov had a combined five goals and two assists over the two playoff series, with his go-ahead goal at 12:42 of the third period in Game 7 against the Islanders certainly the most notable.

He followed up that performance with 20 goals and 57 assists during the regular season, marking the first time that a player other than Alex Ovechkin or Nicklas Backstrom has led the Capitals in scoring since the 2003-04 season.

That mark was reached despite Kuznetsov not having scored a goal in his final 20 regular-season games, though he did have 12 assists during that span.

Kuznetsov joined the Capitals near the end of the 2013-14 season, the only one in the last nine years in which they did not qualify for the playoffs. Still, his postseason experience is extensive; he appeared in the playoffs three times during his four seasons playing in the KHL, with his team, Traktor Chelyabinsk, losing in the Gagarin Cup finals in 2013.

“It’s big difference between the leagues, you know?” Kuznetsov said. “But, it’s still same to work for the Cup, right? Same tough road and, you know, guys in KHL want to win the Cup too, right? Different hockey in different league.”

What Kuznetsov remembers about those appearances are the “crazy people” — “and when I say crazy, it’s good thing.” Fans would wait all day to get tickets for playoff games, and “when they get into the building, they’re pretty loud because they’re emotional group.”

That’s not too dissimilar from what Kuznetsov saw during the playoffs last year — and what he expects to be the same case this year.

“Everything’s like a new season, you know?” he said. “Crowd’s going to be loud, all red, and all are buzzing. That’s why we play hockey — for this time.”

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