New Class of Russian Talent Ready to Take the NHL Postseason by Storm – Sports Illustrated

A version of this story appears in the April 9, 2018, issue of SPORTS ILLUSTRATED. To subscribe, click here.

While Russo-American relations have frayed around 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue these days, a sanctioned Russian back channel is open after most Capitals games just eight blocks away. The host of these informal summits, which take place in the hallway between the home and visiting dressing rooms, typically wears leggings and a compression shirt bearing his personal logo, though sometimes Washington captain Alex Ovechkin greets his visiting countrymen wearing nothing but two bath towels. The chats don’t last long, 10 minutes max. Still, thanks to the outreach of Ovie—plus Capitals sidekicks Evgeny Kuznetsov and Dmitry Orlov—they serve as refreshing reminders of home.  

“There’s not so many Russian guys in this league right now,” says Maple Leafs defenseman Nikita Zaitsev. “That’s why we’re so happy to see each other.” 

They are sticking together—and sticking out. Veterans like Ovechkin and Pittsburgh’s Evgeni Malkin remain as dangerous as ever: the former just led the league in goals (49) for a seventh time, while the latter, now in pursuit of a third straight Stanley Cup, finished two points shy of 100. But a new generation of Russian talent is reaching its mid-20s prime, dazzling with its skills, occupying key roles for contenders throughout the Eastern Conference. 

In Toronto, the 26-year-old Zaitsev averages 22:13 on coach Mike Babcock’s top pair and will soon receive the honor of facing the Bruins’ firepower first line. Sharpshooting Artemi Panarin, also 26, enters Columbus’s opening-round series against Washington with a ludicrous 18 points over his final eight regular season games. Few playmakers exhibit flare like Kuznetsov (27 goals, 56 assists), who damn near pulled off a backhanded lacrosse goal and seemed awful excited about trying again. Orlov, meanwhile, has developed into an

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