ARLINGTON, Va. – Evgeny Kuznetsov’s smiling, laughing presence at the Washington Capitals’ optional practice Friday morning was a promising — and somewhat surprising — sign ahead of Saturday’s Game 3 of the Stanley Cup Final.
Losing their leading playoff scorer and most productive setup man this early in tight championship series would amount to a devastating blow.
Kuznetsov is listed as day-to-day with an upper-body injury.
Although he wore a regular red sweater and skated for more than 30 minutes with his mates at Kettler Capitals Iceplex, the 26-year-old did not speak to reporters because he has not yet been medically cleared to play.
He wore no visible bandage on his hand or wrist.
Coach Barry Trotz said Kuznetsov is “probably a game-time decision.”
Linemate Alex Ovechkin was more optimistic.
“It’s very important to see him skating, and I’m pretty sure he’s going to be OK tomorrow,” the captain said. “I’m sure he’s going to be fine.
“He’s a real good skater, probably the best skater on our team. He controls the puck well, he sees the ice, and he still has the potential to be a better player — that’s what makes him so special.”
“Nabber made a great hit. I think it’s his wrist or something like that happened,” said Knights forward Jonathan Marchessault, himself the target of a late Tom Wilson check in Game 1.
“They definitely didn’t appreciate Kuznetsov getting hit. But at least he had the puck.”
The notion that Kuznetsov may not touch a puck again this season was a worrisome one for the Capitals, who were unsure if he’d even be able to skate today.
The Russian tops all Washington skaters with 25 points in these playoffs and is coming off a career year in which he racked up 56 assists and 83 points. His 11-game point streak was snapped Wednesday when he left the game prematurely.
“It’s hard to replace Kuznetsov the way he’s been playing,” said Nicklas Backstrom, who was temporarily elevated to the top line with Alex Ovechkin and Wilson. “We just have to have other guys step up. That’s what we’ve been doing so far in the playoffs. We’ve got to keep doing it. We’ve got to play like a team.”
Backstrom himself is recovering from a broken finger, and when he missed four games in Round 2, centre Lars Eller jumped from the third line to the second and put up five points over that span.
It was Eller again rising to the occasion in Game 2, factoring in all three goals of the Caps’ 3-2 win once Kuznetsov left.
“He’s one of the most talented players in the league. Maybe top three most talented players in the league,” Eller said.
“Kuzy has a very high IQ. He’s a very smart player. Those players just seem to avoid putting themselves in dangerous areas. He seems to avoid those confrontations where you can get hurt. I think it was a … [five-second pause] it wasn’t good. It should definitely have been a penalty.”
The Capitals have embraced adversity all season long; it’s become an element of their newfound identity.
Winger Chandler Stephenson, 24, did a fine job centring the third line once Backstrom and Eller moved up. Coach Barry Trotz calls the rookie his “Swiss army knife,” and at various points this season he’s played all three forward positions and on all four lines.
“[Stephenson] plays every position pretty well, except defence or goal for us,” Trotz said. “If he’s in more of a grinding line, he’ll play that grinding style. If he’s with the skill people, he’ll play that skill game.”
Trotz pointed out that opponents target Kutznetsov because of his talent but praised his durability and fitness. He’s missed only five games total over the past four seasons.
“I think his background, coming over from Russia, they’re a people that, they’re a tough group. They are,” Trotz said. “And he’s got some toughness to his game and he bounces back.”
Game 3 goes Saturday in Washington at 8:00 p.m. ET. All eyes will be on whether Kuznetsov is twirling around in the pre-game skate.
“Kuzy’s a surprisingly tough kid. He’s a slender guy. Wiry strong. Guys play through stuff all the time, throughout the year and especially at this time of year,” Matt Niskanen said.
“Good news that he was out there today, giving it a try.”