The in-the-moment reason T.J. Oshie, a lifelong right winger, centered the Capitals’ third line to start Game 1 against the Bruins is because Oshie is a selfless teammate whose only objective is winning hockey games, particularly at this time of year — and darned if he didn’t tee up Nic Dowd’s game-winner in overtime.
The real reason Oshie played center and Coach Peter Laviolette had to shuffle his lineup as the playoffs opened is because Evgeny Kuznetsov — who is more infuriating than he is talented, which is saying something because his gifts are extraordinary — remains on the covid-19 protocol list. Like Samsonov, he is there for the second time. Unlike Samsonov, he has not yet eligible to practice, much less play. Who knows when — or if — he will?
The news about the coronavirus these days is largely positive. There were 5,333 fans at Capital One Arena Saturday night, and even 13,000 short of a full house they at least provided some atmosphere, such an improvement from the empty rinks for most of this strange season. If the Caps go deep into the playoffs, every seat will be full because the District is lifting sports arena restrictions June 11. A full-throated “C-A-P-S Caps! Caps! Caps!” to that.
Vaccines are widely available. Transmission rates have declined. The Centers for Disease Control is saying vaccinated people can remove their masks when with each other. New cases in the United States are at the lowest seven-day average since September, according to The Washington Post’s coronavirus tracker. Maybe the summer will approach normal. Maybe the summer will be, of all things, fun.
Yet even with all those positive developments, the virus continues to hang over so much of what we do and how we do it. Professional sports are only able to be contested because each league has employed frequent testing of players and staff and mandated that certain behaviors be curtailed. Dinner on the road with your teammates? Maybe next season. At this point, sacrifices should feel like a day in the life.
Which is why it’s maddening that Samsonov and Kuznetsov weren’t dressed for the Caps in what’s almost certain to be an every-shift-matters series against Boston. These guys got the virus early in the season, when teammates Alex Ovechkin and Dmitry Orlov were also deemed close contacts. They missed time, then talked about their symptoms and their quarantines when they returned.
“It’s not easy days,” Kuznetsov said then.
Lesson learned? Um, well. The Caps’ playoff-opening lineup would suggest otherwise.
“Listen, you always wish that you were at 100 percent, but that rarely if ever happens — not in the regular season, not in the playoffs,” Laviolette said. “We focus on what we do have. The way the guys played tonight, I thought they played terrific.”
Back in January, when teams were becoming accustomed to the parameters of how to behave on the road, maybe there was some leeway. The virus is aggressive and spreads easily. Teams were traveling, staying in hotels. There were no bubbles. Missteps with protocol — and positive tests thereafter — were expected, even understood.
“When we entered the season, we expected it to happen,” Kuznetsov said before he returned in February. “We’ve been ready for some type of situation to happen like that.”
But after that initial issue, there is clear frustration within the Capitals’ organization that Kuznetsov and Samsonov were unavailable to start the playoffs. The pair were held out of a game this month because they were late to a team function. That’s a self-inflicted wound — and not just to themselves,but to their teammates. Laviolette, the veteran coach in his first year with Washington, talks frequently about getting his charges to pull on one rope in one direction. Kuznetsov and Samsonov appear to have frayed one end and are yanking the twine south while their teammates march north.
“The guys are all looking to each other to bond together and pull together on this rope,” Anderson said afterward.
At least the guys who pulled on red sweaters were.
Look, the first concern in any coronavirus situation is for the health of the people involved. All indications are that there are no long-term concerns about either of these players. That’s good.
But what we have also learned over the past 14 months is that personal behavior affects the greater good — or bad. That has applied to society in the broadest sense. It also applies to athletic teams pursuing championships. The way you conduct yourself can affect your neighbor — whether that neighbor is in the next house or the next locker stall.
This isn’t the first time these two have forced their club to wonder about their commitment to on-ice excellence. In 2019, Kuznetsov was suspended three games after testing positive for cocaine. Last summer, Samsonov — who was outplaying veteran Braden Holtby before the pandemic pause — was unavailable for the Capitals’ appearance in the Toronto playoff bubble because he suffered an off-ice injury while in Russia during the pandemic shutdown.
Maybe it’s not fair to link those situations to this one. What’s undeniable: Without Kuznetsov and Samsonov, the chances of a deep postseason run are compromised.
This was supposed to be Samsonov’s breakout season. The Caps signed veteran goalie Henrik Lundqvist in the offseason, but if Samsonov ran with the job, it was his. Vanecek arrived only because Lundqvist was diagnosed with a heart condition and had to miss the season — yet Vanecek was forced into a string of starts because of Samsonov’s initial stint on the covid list.
When the Caps won the Cup in 2018, Ovechkin claimed the Conn Smythe Trophy as the playoff MVP, but there was scarcely a better player in the league over that two-month stretch than Kuznetsov. He scored the overtime goal that finally vanquished Pittsburgh. He was a force who seemed well worth the eight-year, $62.4 million contract the Caps granted him in the summer of 2017.
Now? Now he’s nowhere to be found. So here, on Saturday night, was Oshie, playing on that third line rather than to Kuznetsov’s right as a second-line wing, the top six forwards shuffled about. And here was Anderson — who appeared in just four regular season games — trying to hold off Boston’s dangerous trio of Brad Marchand, David Pastrnak and David Krejci. He did so more than admirably, saving 21 of the 22 shots he faced.
The best version of these Washington Capitals involves Evgeny Kuznetsov as a dangerous, playmaking center and Ilya Samsonov as an option in net — particularly if Vanecek is unavailable. That version of the Capitals wasn’t in Chinatown on Saturday night. You have to wonder how those two felt, watching their teammates try to win without them — and how long that will go on.