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Caps' Ovechkin and Kuznetsov inspire Russian players, fans

(AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais)

By STEPHEN WHYNO

AP Hockey Writer

WASHINGTON (AP) Alex Ovechkin knows the Washington Capitals have plenty of fans back in Russia.

"Over there lots of friends, lots of people watch the games," Ovechkin said of his countrymen. "It's been huge."

He is also huge in Barrie, Ontario, where projected top-five draft pick Andrei Svechnikov has been watching Ovechkin, Evgeny Kuznetsov and Dmitry Orlov serve as inspirations for young Russian players and fans on this run to the Stanley Cup Final. The native of Siberian city Barnaul got to meet his fellow Russians on Monday morning and got an up-close view of their dominance in Game 4 that night.

"(Ovechkin) and Kuzy and Orlov, these guys just famous in hockey world," Svechnikov said. "I am very happy."

Ovechkin, Kuznetsov and Orlov are making plenty of young Russian players and fans happy. They are just one win away from winning the Stanley Cup. Svechnikov admired smooth-skating, high-scoring Hall of Fame winger Pavel Bure growing up, and now watches in amazement at what Kuznetsov does on the ice with his skill - not to mention his bird-flapping celebrations.

"Great skater. Every time wants to be involved, hungry every time. Very smart player. A lot of skill," Svechnikov said of Kuznetsov, who leads the playoffs in scoring and added four assists in a 6-2 win over Vegas. "He just like star, you know? He can do whatever he want."

The joy of Ovechkin, Kuznetsov and Orlov is being watched closely not only in Washington but back home where they're big fan favorites.

"A lot of people watching it because three Russian players in Washington and obviously Ovi big superstar in the world and everybody follow," Orlov said. "A lot of fans, a lot of kids enjoy his game."

The Capitals could have the most Russians on a Cup champion in the salary-cap era. The 2004 Tampa Bay Lightning were backstopped to their first franchise title by Nikolai Khabibulin, and the Detroit Red Wings' Russian Five in the 1990s shined a spotlight on all the talent coming out of the old Soviet system.

After Evgeni Malkin was the only Russian player on the Pittsburgh Penguins' back-to-back Cup champions the past two seasons, this is another showcase of this generation of talent. Playoff leading scorer Kuznetsov and leading goal-scorer Ovechkin are also the top candidates to follow Malkin as just the second Russian to win the Conn Smythe Trophy as playoff MVP.

"Ovi has been a staple since he's come into the league. Kuzy is a little newer," coach Barry Trotz said. "People don't really know him as well as Ovi. You're seeing the talent of Kuzy. You've seen the greatness of Ovi over the course of his career to this point. I think Kuzy is just getting better and better."

The 26-year-old Kuznetsov is reluctant to talk about himself or any other individual player, but he knows this is special for Ovechkin, who is 32 and has been waiting 13 seasons for this with nine previous early playoff exits to his name.

"Every Russian guy back home pretty happy for him because that's huge," Kuznetsov said. "That's a long time."

Ovechkin wished Svechnikov good luck later this month at the NHL draft, where he was the No. 1 pick back in 2004. A short conversation at a morning skate was enough to leave Svechnikov beaming.

"Just famous guy - everybody knows him and everybody watch him," Svechnikov said. "It's just an honor to have met with him."

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More Stanley Cup coverage: https://apnews.com/tag/StanleyCupFinals

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Follow Hockey Writer Stephen Whyno on Twitter at http://twitter.com/SWhyno

Updated June 5, 2018

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