Each Washington Capitals player who stepped onto the ice at the team’s practice facility Friday afternoon was greeted with cheers from another large crowd, fans cautiously hopeful after the Capitals returned from Las Vegas with the Stanley Cup finals split through two games. But then center Evgeny Kuznetsov strode out of the locker room in a red jersey, seemingly no worse for wear after he was crunched against the glass and missed most of Game 2 just two days ago. The cheers were delayed, perhaps out of disbelief.
Kuznetsov wasn’t made available to media after the practice session because a team spokesman said he hasn’t been cleared to play from the undisclosed upper-body injury he suffered when Vegas Golden Knights defenseman Brayden McNabb checked him in the first period Wednesday night. Kuznetsov skated off the ice grimacing and clutching his left wrist. He didn’t return to the game, and though the Capitals classified him as day-to-day, the prognosis didn’t look good for Washington’s leading scorer in the postseason.
But Kuznetsov joined his teammates for the Capitals’ optional practice Friday, shooting and stickhandling with few limitations. Coach Barry Trotz said Kuznetsov is “probably a game-time decision” for Saturday’s Game 3, but all signs point to him playing. It would be a significant boost for Washington’s championship hopes.
“He’s one of our top guys,” captain Alex Ovechkin said. “Of course it’s very important to see him skating, and I’m pretty sure he’s going to be okay tomorrow.”
Ovechkin has had a handful of close calls with injuries throughout his career, but he’s either played through them or simply avoided getting seriously hurt. Since having shoulder surgery five years ago, when he was still playing in the Kontinental Hockey League, Kuznetsov has displayed an Ovechkin-like durability, a quality of his game that’s arguably underappreciated. Kuznetsov missed three games this season because of a shoulder injury, and since he made his NHL debut four years ago, that’s the only time he’s been out of the lineup because of injury. Among current Capitals, just Ovechkin has played more games than Kuznetsov over the past four seasons — and it’s a difference of one game. Ovechkin’s famous “Russian machine never breaks” line might need to be recrafted to accommodate a second.
“Kuzy is a surprisingly tough kid,” defenseman Matt Niskanen said. “He’s kind of a slender guy, wiry strong. But guys play through stuff all the time throughout the year and then especially this time of year. We’ll see if he’s available for Game 3 or whenever he comes back. But good news that he was out there today giving it a try.”
Said center Jay Beagle: “He wanted to come back out there in the game, I think, but it just wasn’t in the best interest, and I think him and the medical staff made the right call. He says he’s feeling better today, and that’s a great sign.”
Although Washington won Game 2 with Kuznetsov missing the final two periods, he has been the Capitals’ “best player in playoffs so far,” center Nicklas Backstrom said. After he had 27 goals and 56 assists during the regular season, Kuznetsov is the NHL’s top postseason scorer with 11 goals and 14 assists for 25 points through 21 games.
Kuznetsov has largely compiled those points while centering the top line with Ovechkin and right wing Tom Wilson. He also typically has been responsible for Washington’s smooth offensive-zone entries on the top power-play unit. His slick skating, zipping around the ice with minimal movement of his feet, is what makes him so hard to hit, which has kept him largely healthy the past four years. He skated among the most minutes of Capitals forwards this season, but just Jakub Vrana, Beagle and Ovechkin took fewer hits than Kuznetsov’s 48, according to Natural Stat Trick.
“Kuzy has a very high IQ,” center Lars Eller said. “He’s a very smart player, and those players just seem to kind of avoid putting themselves in dangerous areas. They seem to avoid those confrontations where you can get hurt.”
If Kuznetsov doesn’t receive medical clearance for Game 3, Backstrom is expected to center Ovechkin and Wilson, with Eller between wingers T.J. Oshie and Vrana on the second line. In a show of a resilience that has carried the Capitals through this long postseason, the team won three of the four games Backstrom missed because of an injury to his right index finger, so Washington is confident it could overcome Kuznetsov’s loss, too. Of course, the team would prefer he play, which he has done consistently in his NHL career.
“He’s an athlete who takes care of himself on and off the ice,” Trotz said. “I think his background coming over from Russia, they’re a people that they’re a tough group. They are. And he’s got some toughness to his game, and he bounces back.”
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