Kuznetsov left Monday’s game after Leo Komarov crunched him along the boards in front of the Islanders’ bench. Kuznetsov was in clear discomfort and was slow to get up before heading directly down the tunnel to the Capitals’ dressing room. He did not return to the game.
At Tuesday’s practice, Lars Eller replaced Kuznetsov on the second line alongside T.J. Oshie and Jakub Vrana. Travis Boyd took Eller’s spot on the third line. Eller has been the team’s Swiss Army knife this season, moving up and down the lineup as needed.
When either Kuznetsov or Nicklas Backstrom has been out over the past two seasons, Eller has nine points in 10 games replacing them.
“It always hurts you a little when a guy like Kuzy is missing, but these other guys will slide in and get the job done,” Oshie said. “Playing with Lars has been great in the past, and it seems like we’ve had a lot of success together. Me and him personally have a lot of chemistry for whatever reason. We are just aware of where the other guy is on the ice, so we’ll look to build on that in Colorado.”
Eller was on the ice for 20:57 against the Islanders, one of his highest ice times of the season. Reirden was playing Eller every other shift after the injury, on both the second and third lines. Eller finished with a goal and won 53 percent of his faceoffs (10 of 19).
“I thought he had a strong game last night,” Reirden said Tuesday. “I thought he was one of our better players, and I think he has done well in the past with Vrana and Oshie. So he has the ability to slide up and down like that and an ability we are happy about with this player — the versatility he has.”
Alongside Carl Hagelin and Richard Panik, Eller has helped the third line transform into the shutdown line Reirden had envisioned earlier in the season.
“Lars definitely in the past seems like anytime we lose one of our big two centerman, he really rises to the challenge and takes advantage of his new opportunity and ice time, and we will be leaning on him quite a bit,” Oshie said.
If Kuznetsov is unable to return soon, Boyd, who last played Jan. 27 against Montreal when Alex Ovechkin was serving a suspension for skipping the All-Star Game, probably will center the third line. Boyd has three goals and six assists in 20 games.
Kuznetsov has played in every game since missing the season’s first three games while serving a suspension for “inappropriate conduct.” He has 19 goals and 27 assists in 53 games.
The second line had a hot stretch in late January, with Vrana scoring eight goals in nine games. Oshie also has 21 goals this season.
The Capitals’ biggest problem recently has been their top line. Ovechkin, Backstrom and Tom Wilson have been held scoreless in the past two games. Ovechkin was on the ice for all five Islanders goals Monday. Wilson hasn’t scored since Jan. 29, and Backstrom hasn’t scored since Jan. 27.
“I think, obviously — I include myself in all of this — it’s not the way that our line has wanted to play the last couple games,” Wilson said. “But you can just tell right off the get-go, I think, the battles, the compete, our identity that we’ve had all year long, we’re not really playing to that right now. We’ve got to get pucks in. We’ve got to make it tough on the other team, especially against divisional rivals.”
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