When the NHL was still an ocean away, Evgeny Kuznetsov would study the best and hope one day to join them. From Chelyabinsk, Russia, he watched highlights of Pittsburgh centers Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin, analyzing their games and trying to take bits and pieces to shape his own.

Then Kuznetsov’s NHL debut with the Capitals came against the Penguins, and even three years later, he smiles while recalling the thrill of being on the ice at the same as countryman Malkin.

“I’m always trying to pick up some good stuff from players I like,” Kuznetsov said. “I’m not going to say exactly which area. I’m a little bit shy because he’s still playing hockey, you know?”

Shy? Hardly. When Kuznetsov scored his first goal of this Eastern Conference semifinal against the Penguins, he skated on one leg as he flapped both arms, a bird celebration he copied from the FIFA video game he plays in his free time. That might have – ahem – ruffled some of the Penguins’ feathers, but it was his way of announcing his presence in a series in which he has been impossible to miss.

While captain Alex Ovechkin accepted a reduced role by playing on a third line in the previous game, a different enigmatic Russian has emerged as the Capitals’ brightest star in the postseason. With players due pay raises and salary-cap constraints looming this summer, this playoff run is the last for the best team to surround Ovechkin, and the window is closing for the 31-year-old to win a Stanley Cup.

But no matter how this campaign ends, with Washington down three games to two going into Monday’s Game 6 in Pittsburgh, Kuznetsov’s play is assurance that the future of the franchise is still brimming with bird-flapping celebrations. His play has started to mirror that of the players he has long admired.

“I think he’s taken on the responsibility of being a top player,” Capitals Coach Barry Trotz said. “I think there’s a growth pattern where you’re a player that you want to have good stats or you want to be successful, and then there’s a period of time where you’re under the radar a little bit and you still want to be under the radar.

“But once you take the responsibility of being a difference-maker or a guy who will be required or be responsible to be a difference-maker, then it’s a little bit different mind-set. And I think he’s crossing over. He knows that he’s got to be a difference-maker and he’s going to play against top guys and he’s going to be a guy that can’t take minutes off and has got to be detailed and has got to fight for his inches. I think he’s accepted that, and once you accept that, then you become a real good player.”

A year ago, Kuznetsov struggled under the spotlight. Coming off a 77-point season in which he led the Capitals in scoring, Kuznetsov didn’t respond well to opposing teams paying attention to him by limiting his time and space in the postseason. He finished with just one goal and one assist in 12 playoff games, one of the biggest disappointments in another early exit for Washington.

He has relished those tough matchups this season. Just two years ago, Kuznetsov’s deployment was mostly sheltered to the offensive zone because Trotz didn’t trust him yet. But in the Capitals’ first-round series against the Maple Leafs this postseason, Kuznetsov had the unenviable task of going head-to-head with Toronto star rookie center Auston Matthews. With a lot of his ice time coming against Malkin in this series, Kuznetsov has scored four goals in five games.

“I’ve said all along this year and throughout the playoffs, too, for us to win, he needs to be great,” forward Justin Williams said.

“What sets him apart from other guys is his skating ability,” defenseman Brooks Orpik said. “He’s a pretty effortless skater, even when you watch him in practice. … He’s one of those guys who just has really good edge-work, so he’s really deceptive with his speed. You see when he beats guys wide, it looks like he’s not even striding. So I think that’s where his defensive game – obviously, I don’t think he’s that much better of a skater now than he was three years ago, but I think he knows how to use it. Defensively, he’s definitely gotten a lot better.”

Kuznetsov acknowledged that he has felt faster this postseason. Maybe that’s because he’s looser, too. As other Capitals have expressed concern over how “tight” the team has been in this second-round series, Kuznetsov has been the opposite of that. “You think I ever feel tight?” he said. Indeed, he loves putting on a show, whether it be through his dazzling passes, his kooky goal celebrations or his entertaining interviews with media.

After Game 1 against Pittsburgh, Kuznetsov told a handful of reporters that Malkin asked him a question on the ice, and since he considers himself a “kind of nice person,” Kuznetsov tried to provide an answer in between plays. But with Kuznetsov’s Russian accent, it was unclear whether he said Malkin’s query was about sticks, skates or steaks, coincidentally Kuznetsov’s favorite American dish. He was asked to clarify.

“Can you guys speak English?” he quipped.

(It was sticks).

“I think it’s just confidence really,” Orpik said. “I think last year, he was feeling a little bit of pressure, and just kind of putting a little too much pressure on himself. I think now he’s just a lot more relaxed, a lot more confident.”

The Capitals’ fate beyond Monday’s Game 6 is unclear. Eleven players on the roster are in a contract year, and that includes Kuznetsov, a pending restricted free agent. But while some tough roster decisions will have to be made this summer, Kuznetsov is certain to stick around, firmly the face of the franchise’s future.

He’s also a big part of the team’s present.

“Just like all players, you grow into certain roles with your team,” Trotz said. “I think he’s in a place where he understands he’s a big part of our team, not only now, but going forward.”

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