It’s well known that the top player the Washington Capitals must keep their eye on in their opening series is rookie Auston Matthews.
The scorer of 40 goals and 69 points terrorized the NHL all year as he dazzled and powered his way through a sure Calder-winning year.
“He’s got such a good skill level,” Barry Trotz said of Matthews. “The thing that he does really well that people don’t realize and is underrated is he has a quick stick. He’s got a quick stick, he’s got a lot of [Pavel] Datsyuk, pick stick from behind. When you think you’re out of his range, he’s able to get the puck. And when he gets the puck, he’s going to some pretty good things.”
While Trotz stated that he wasn’t matching lines, he surely had to keep tabs on how Matthews was playing periodically throughout the game. Trotz, after all, did have last change in Game 1. And when things got a bit hectic after the Capitals went down 2-0 just 9:44 minutes into the game, Trotz didn’t put his top center Nicklas Backstrom against Matthews. He didn’t even put his defensive specialist in Jay Beagle up against the 19-year-old phenom.
He put in Evgeny Kuznetsov.
In total, Kuznetsov saw 23 even strength shifts in Game 1. Of those 23 shifts, 14 featured some ice time against Matthews, according to Shift Charts.
Kuznetsov facing these kind of matchups is a little foreign. During last year’s playoffs, Trotz religiously iced Backstrom against Sidney Crosby’s line. And it is widely known that Trotz does not fear utilizing Beagle against any line in the NHL.
But while Trotz compares Matthews’ abilities to Datsyuk, it turns out that the Capitals have a bit of a Datsyuk of their own in Kuznetsov. And while Kuznetsov admitted he does admire and model his game after Datsyuk, he’s still pretty bashful about the comparison.
“It’s tough to try to be like Pavel,” Kuznetsov said with a smile.
But Kuznetsov held his own against Matthews. The second line hummed along, leading to two of the team’s three goals. Trotz recognized the line was working well, and Kuznetsov saw 20:07 minutes of ice time in the game, the fourth-highest total among forwards in the game.
According to our very own Muneeb Alam, Kuznetsov was a plus six in shot attempts when he was on the ice with Matthews, greatly shifting the matchup into the Capitals’ favor.
“He’s a world-class player, he has world-class ability,” Trotz said of Kuznetsov. “I don’t have any issues with Kuzy. I just felt it was a good matchup, and it certainly felt that way a little bit.”
Trotz cited that the way to contain Matthews is to not allow him inside position and by picking and choosing when to be physical. Kuznetsov clearly took note, throwing four checks in the game. Those four hits were the second-most among all Capitals, trailing only the physically-imposing Tom Wilson. Not bad for a player who finished the game with a 55.32 shot attempt percentage.
Not much is said for Kuznetsov and his defensive abilities, but it may become more and more evident if Kuznetsov is iced consistently against Matthews and he continues to excel. However, during the regular season, Kuznetsov’s 51.63 shot attempts against per 60 minutes of play (score and venue adjusted) was the eighth-lowest total among forwards this season, lower than both Backstrom and Beagle.
Defense isn’t really something Kuznetsov takes pride in. It’s not that he doesn’t personally care about it, defense is just a fact of life every hockey player has to deal with. He’s no different, so he doesn’t really care about who he’s out against. He’ll still ultimately have to play in his own end on occasion.
“We all have to play defensive,” Kuznetsov said. “If all five guys play [the same way], we’ll be okay. Sometimes the player is going to do a mistake, and it’s all about the guys behind him. We got to [do our part], that’s it.”
Kuznetsov’s part may be a bit more difficult if he continues playing against Matthews. But Kuznetsov clearly won round one, and while he may personally recognize that after a strong performance from he and his linemates, Kuznetsov has too much respect for Matthews to puff out his chest.
“Overall, he a good young player,” Kuznetsov said. “I love the way he play.”