By Tarik El-Bashir
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, February 26, 2009
When Viktor Kozlov felt a twinge in his leg in the first period in New Jersey earlier this month, the hulking Washington Capitals winger was pulled from the lineup as a precaution.
No one thought then that Kozlov would end up being sidelined for nine games. No one realized how much he would be missed, either.
Kozlov is expected to return to the Capitals lineup tonight against the lowly Atlanta Thrashers and, according to Coach Bruce Boudreau, could rejoin teammates Alex Ovechkin and Nicklas Backstrom on the top line.
Boudreau spoke glowingly yesterday about the player he has affectionately dubbed "the unsung Russian" and the chemistry between Kozlov and young stars Ovechkin and Backstrom. Together, they form arguably the most dangerous line in the NHL.
"He's like a piece to the puzzle on that line that allows you to do so much more," Boudreau said of Kozlov. "He's a big, strong-bodied guy who communicates well with Alex and Nicky. He doesn't have 75 points, but he's that round peg in that round hole."
Kozlov's statistics -- 11 goals, 20 assists and a plus-minus rating of minus-3 -- certainly are not overwhelming. But what the 34-year-old brings to the Capitals, and the top line specifically, is not easily measured by his numbers alone, Boudreau said.
With Kozlov sidelined, Boudreau tried Alexander Semin, Eric Fehr and Michael Nylander as replacements. None of them, however, fit with Ovechkin and Backstrom the way Kozlov does.
The Capitals' biggest forward at 6 feet 5, 237 pounds, Kozlov sees the ice like a center, a position he has played at times throughout his 14-year NHL career. But it's his ability to win puck battles along the boards and in the corners, as well as his slick stick work, that makes him so valuable. Once he has the puck, he hangs on to it and protects it from opposing defensemen, which often attracts two players to him and, in turn, opens space for the other two forwards.
"He's got a really good offensive mind," Boudreau said. "He can make the great pass and think at the level [his linemates] think at and keep up with them. They're a very good line, there's no doubt."
Ovechkin said he has a comfort level with Kozlov that the two have cultivated over the past year-plus.
"We just understand each other well because we play together for two years," Ovechkin said. "Viktor is good on the right wing for me. He gives me pass, he brings power and experience to our line."
Kozlov had no idea when he left Washington's 5-2 win in New Jersey on Feb. 3 that he would miss more than a tenth of the season. But the team has been cautious with groin injuries this season, particularly after top defenseman Tom Poti was forced to injured reserved three times for a total of 26 games because of groin muscle injuries.
"It's been hard," Kozlov said. "I was happy that the team was winning. But at the same time, I want to be on the ice and be part of that winning. But an injury is an injury. You have to heal it.
"So far I feel pretty good in practice. The next step is to try it in a game."
It's important that Kozlov remains healthy for the remaining 21 games of the regular season -- for both the player and the team. He is in the final year of a two-year, $5 million contract. Whether Kozlov gets another contract from the Capitals, though, will be determined by his play down the stretch and in the playoffs, where he has yet to score a goal in 21 career games.
"To be honest, I don't think about that," he said. "For us, it's just about preparing for the playoffs. That's what I'm thinking. I don't think about the contract at all."
But with a minor league system stocked with prospects who could conceivably replace Kozlov, General Manager George McPhee and salary cap analyst Don Fishman will have a tough decision to make.
After a three-week hiatus, Kozlov said he can't wait to get back in the lineup. And besides, he joked, playing with Ovechkin and Backstrom is less complicated than his rigorous rehab routine.
"My job is simple," Kozlov said with a smile. "I just have to pass the puck to Nicky or Alex."