ARLINGTON, Va. – Under normal circumstances, we would be ready to pronounce Evgeny Kuznetsov fit to play Saturday’s game at Capital One Arena.
He skated with teammates in a regular sweater for a second straight day. He took his normal spot in line rushes between Alex Ovechkin and Tom Wilson. He was part of the first unit power-play reps.
But this is Game 3 of the Stanley Cup Final, so these are not normal circumstances.
The possibility of subterfuge can’t be ruled out and the Washington Capitals listed their star centre as a “game-time decision.” Kuznetsov deflected with his typical off-beat humour when asked if he felt he could help in a game that might swing a 1-1 series against the Vegas Golden Knights.
“I don’t know. We’ll see if I’m in,” he said. “I definitely can help in the morning skate, no? More people. Less time you have to go.”
The only real cause for concern is that Kuznetsov didn’t look particularly comfortable handling the puck on Saturday morning. You could see him grit his teeth at times while taking shots. This was not the usual vibe of a player with 25 points in 21 games this spring.
Kuznetsov also missed two-plus periods of Wednesday’s game after taking a heavy hit from Vegas defenceman Brayden McNabb – a collision that included head contact and saw him leave the ice favouring his left shoulder/arm/wrist.
The word circulating around the Capitals dressing room is that Kuznetsov attempted to return in Game 2 but wasn’t allowed. This team, to its credit, has taken a cautious approach to injuries throughout the post-season – holding Nicklas Backstrom out of four games against the Pittsburgh Penguins in Round 2 with a left-hand issue. Might they do it again with the leading scorer in these playoffs still clearly at something less than 100 per cent?
“In these type of games you always want to play, but you have to do better for your team and you have to understand it doesn’t matter who you are, what kind of player, you have to understand can you help the team or no,” said Kuznetsov. “That’s the biggest part. You have to understand it and you have to communicate with the coaches, doctors and everybody, can you help the team? It doesn’t mean what you want. Sometimes it’s just emotional.
“You want to play every game, but you have to do what’s best for the team.”
It is a difficult question to answer with so much on the line. We are accustomed in this sport to seeing players suit up in any big playoff game where they can wiggle their way into equipment – celebrating the likes of Bobby Baun, who scored an overtime goal for Toronto in the 1964 Stanley Cup final while playing on a broken ankle.
At least Kuznetsov says he’s not dealing with any broken bones. He added “I think I’m born lucky” when asked if the damage he suffered wasn’t as bad as initially feared.
“You know if something was broken, I would not sit here. I would be in the ambulance,” said Kuznetsov. “But no. Like I said, it’s a hockey player and sometimes they’re hitting us and sometimes we’re going to hit them.”
His presence significantly alters the way Washington lines up. It appeared that 21-year-old Shane Gersich was the most likely to draw in if Kuznetsov couldn’t go since he didn’t participate in the early goalie drills with the other scratches on Saturday morning.
It would mean the team’s four centres would run Backstrom, Lars Eller, Chandler Stephenson and Jay Beagle. Or perhaps Alex Chiasson gets back in and plays rather than Gersich.
There are always plenty of possibilities in the playoffs, which explains why the Golden Knights have spent considerably less time than the media concerning themselves with Kuznetsov’s status.
“Makes no difference to us. Obviously, we know he’s a great hockey player,” said Vegas coach Gerard Gallant. “I’m sure they’d love to have him in their lineup. But nothing changes for our group if he plays. He’s an important player for them, definitely, but it won’t change anything we do.”
Still, it does change the overall look of the championship series.
We’ll be watching warmups closely to make sure that everything is exactly as it seems.