“I’m pretty sure he’s going to be fine,” captain Alex Ovechkin said Wednesday night.
Though Washington won with Kuznetsov missing most of the game, a prolonged absence would be a significant blow to the team’s championship hopes. Kuznetsov is the league’s top scorer in the postseason with 11 goals and 14 assists for 25 points through 21 games. He has centered the top line with Ovechkin and Tom Wilson, and he’s also on the Capitals’ top power-play unit. Kuznetsov has been durable during his NHL career, playing at least 79 games in each of his past four seasons in Washington while never missing a playoff game. The Capitals host Game 3 at 8 p.m. Saturday in Capital One Arena.
“He’s been our best player in playoffs so far,” center Nicklas Backstrom said. “I mean, that’s tough. We’ll see what happens.”
The Capitals’ greatest strength is depth at center, but that has taken a hit this postseason with Backstrom believed to be playing with a broken right index finger after missing four games earlier this month. Kuznetsov was crunched against the glass by Vegas defenseman Brayden McNabb 14:39 into the first period, a hit Trotz characterized as “high” and “questionable.” Kuznetsov skated off grimacing and clutching his left side, seemingly favoring his wrist. Though Trotz didn’t like the hit, the unpenalized collision won’t result in any supplemental discipline from the league.
After Kuznetsov exited, Backstrom centered Ovechkin and Wilson while center Lars Eller moved up to the second line with T.J. Oshie and Jakub Vrana. That shifted versatile forward Chandler Stephenson from fourth-line left wing to third-line center between Andre Burakovsky and Brett Connolly. Should Kuznetsov miss Game 3, veteran Alex Chiasson is expected to draw back into the lineup, filling out the fourth line with center Jay Beagle and Devante Smith-Pelly.
It’s a very similar lineup configuration to the one Washington used for the three games Backstrom missed to start the Eastern Conference finals. The Capitals won the first two contests against the Tampa Bay Lightning, in large part because of how well Eller played in Backstrom’s absence. On Wednesday, Eller again rose to the occasion with Kuznetsov out, scoring a goal and tallying two primary assists.
“The more I am out there, the better I feel with the puck, better flow in my game,” Eller said. “I knew from the Tampa series that I have really good chemistry with Vrana and Oshie, so it wasn’t really a surprise for me when we did some good things when we were put back together.”
Said goaltender Braden Holtby: “To get to this point of the playoffs, as a team you have to be stronger than any one member. Other guys have to step up and make different plays because you’re not going to have your full lineup the whole time. If you’re playing hard, that’s not going to happen. Obviously Kuzy, just like Nick, is irreplaceable as a single guy, but you can make up for it with other guys stepping up different ways, a group collective effort.”
Read more Stanley Cup playoffs coverage: