This week has already seen notable matchups in the NHL such as Connor McDavid vs. Sidney Crosby on Tuesday and Auston Matthews vs. Patrik Laine on Wednesday. On Thursday, hockey fans will be treated to yet another major matchup as Evgeny Kuznetsov leads the Caps to Edmonton to take on McDavid and the Oilers.
McDavid is the best player in hockey and is trying to lead Edmonton back to the postseason after a disappointing 2017-18 campaign. Kuznetsov, meanwhile, is facing a very different obstacle: Perception.
"I think he's up there with the all-around top five players in the league and, I don't know," T.J. Oshie said. "He just doesn't get the recognition for some reason."
"Evgeny Kuznetsov may be our best player," Ted Leonsis told NBC Sports Washington before the season began. "He might be the best player in the NHL right now. He's almost overlooked."
Kuznetsov's talent has been evident to Capitals fans for years, but he seemingly could not break through the barrier between great and elite. That changed in the playoffs.
Kuznetsov was brilliant in the Caps' run to the Stanley Cup as he led the NHL with 32 points in 24 games. He easily could have won the Conn Smythe Trophy as playoff MVP, but he was edged out by Alex Ovechkin who voters acknowledged for his tremendous postseason and career accomplishments.
What Kuznetsov showed in the spring of 2018 is that he is not just a very good player, but should be considered among the NHL's elite. That's why some experts, myself included, believe he can be a candidate for the Hart Trophy this year.
So far, he seems to have picked up this season right where he left off with five goals and 13 points in just eight games.
"[Kuznetsov] has gotten off to an excellent start to the season and how he finished the year last year was, he's a difference maker," head coach Todd Reirden said, "And we're very fortunate to have a player like that. He's just rounding out his game."
Within the hockey community, however, Kuznetsov does not seem to be considered at the same level as players like McDavid or Matthews. That's what makes Thursday's game so important.
Thursday offers Kuznetsov the chance to go toe to toe with the best player in the game and change his own narrative. Look at what Tuesday's performance against the Oilers did for Crosby.
Most people were willing to accept that the now 31-year-old Crosby is no longer the game's best player. On Tuesday, however, Crosby scored two goals, his first goals of the season, against what looks like a still flawed Oilers roster. His overtime goal was tremendous, but because he beat Edmonton that suddenly has reopened the debate as to who the best player in hockey is despite the fact that McDavid has been brilliant this season. The Oilers have only 18 goals and McDavid still has 13 points. He is carrying that team offensively.
Edmonton is 3-3-1. Beating them is not some major accomplishment, but no one looked at that game like it was Edmonton vs. Pittsburgh. That game was McDavid vs. Crosby and Crosby elevated his game because of it. He rose to the challenge.
Thursday in Edmonton, Kuznetsov will have his own opportunity to make a statement.
McDavid is the best player in hockey and that will be true on Friday regardless of what happens on Thursday, but If Kuznetsov truly has risen to the level of being one of the top players in the game, he needs to elevate his game and prove it in Edmonton.
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