Evgeny Malkin and Brad Richards. What do these two players have in common? They are both centers. They both have won the Stanley Cup. They were both the second line centers on those Cup winning teams. They both won the Conn Smythe Award as the playoff MVP’s.
In the playoffs, depth of skill can make the difference in advancing. In the second round, every team either has an elite goaltender or at least a very good one. Every team also has a solid defense. What the best teams have that the others do not is depth of skill. While some teams have this in an elite offensive defenseman, others have it in their second line.
But why is the second line so important? The top lines always face the top defensive pairing and the opponent’s best checking forward line. This means the second line usually does not face the opponents top defensive pairing. It also means they will face their opposite second line or maybe even the opponent’s fourth line. While these matchups are not always the case, over time, there is no doubt that the second line faces less rigid opposition.
Case in point: Malkin had a monster 2009 playoffs scoring 36 points in the Pens’ 24 games. Richards had 26 points in the Lightning’s 23 games in 2004.
This bring us to the Caps’ second line, and more specifically its center, Evgeny Kuznetsov. The Caps have upgraded the skill on the second line, as either TJ Oshie or Justin Williams will play on the right in the playoffs. But what about Kuzy? Can he be that offensive force that puts the Caps into the Eastern Conference Finals or even to the Cup?
Last regular season Kuznetsov earned 37 points in 80 games. This despite, starting the season slowly on the fourth line. In the first round against the New York Islanders, Kuznetsov had a breakout series. He had three points (2G, 1A) in the 5-1 victory, and scored the series winning goal in game seven of the series.
All signs point to Kuznetsov’s production improving this year. He is still young and learning to play the game. He can only get better in that respect. Combine this with the improved personnel on his line, and it’s not a stretch to say that Kuznetsov is now a key player, maybe the key player for the Capitals to advance past the second round this year.
By Lincoln Cajulis