The Washington Capitals’ transformation from playoff team to Stanley Cup contender rested on two main pillars: Braden Holtby’s emergence as an elite NHL netminder, and a deadly second line boasting both experience and creativity.
Holtby has been predictably excellent in these playoffs, steadier than a metronome. And the second line? Something less than that. Regular season points leader Evgeny Kuznetsov has two points in eight playoff games. Ditto for linemate Justin Williams, who was brought to Washington specifically for his postseason prowess. Their other linemate has switched from Andre Burakovsky to Marcus Johansson, but the change hasn’t helped. This, perhaps, is not the postseason production Washington was looking for.
“That’s a nice way of putting it,” Williams said.
Things have gotten weird enough that workmanlike center Jay Beagle received exactly one second less of ice time than Kuznetsov in Saturday’s Game 2 loss to the Pittsburgh Penguins. That’s largely because Washington spent so much time killing penalties. But the fact remains: Washington’s dangerous Kuznetsov group has been oddly quiet in the postseason, and the team’s offensive productivity is suffering because of it.
“We need to be a little firmer and [more] confident in our abilities,” said Williams, who has now gone 15 games without a goal, easily his longest slump of the season. “You can’t second guess if you don’t score for a few games or you’re not as productive as you were in the regular season. You just need to simplify it and do the same things you were doing when you were successful and trust your instincts. And for us to win, we know that we have to be a big part of it. So we’re putting a lot of pressure on ourselves to be productive.”
What’s odd is that the group was so reliable in the regular season, as Kuznetsov developed into a must-watch distributor and made his first All-Star Game. “He’s like another Nick Backstrom all of a sudden,” Hall of Famer Scott Stevens said at the time, and indeed, Kuznetsov became the first Capital other than Backstrom or Ovechkin to lead Washington in points in more than a decade. After years of futile searching, the Caps finally found an engine for their second line.
And now? Kuznetsov has one goal since March 2, an almost unimaginable 28-game stretch. His secondary assist on Saturday night broke an eight-game stretch without an assist, his longest skid of the season.
“He’s still working hard. He’s still doing some sick plays out there,” said Burakovsky, who is now playing on the third line after spending most of the season with Kuznetsov and Williams. “I mean, we need him here in playoffs, and I’m not worried. I still think he’s doing really good plays out there and working hard and winning battles and beating his guys one-on-one. The only thing that’s missing is points, but it’s going to come. There’s no question about it.”
For his team’s sake, it better happen soon. Washington is averaging the second-fewest goals of the eight remaining playoff teams and has just 10 even-strength tallies through eight playoff games. The Caps were outshot by the Penguins in consecutive games, and the second line has battled with turnovers, penalties and missed chances.
Coach Barry Trotz talked to Kuznetsov over the weekend about staving off frustration and looking forward rather than backward. But when asked about his team’s second line, Trotz also wondered which line that term referred to. Three months ago, that wouldn’t have been a question.
“I think they haven’t had a lot of zone time,” Trotz said before Saturday’s game, when the second line was more active but still struggled with turnovers. “Things haven’t gone the way they’ve wanted. And I think just a little more battle on the puck will help. They’ve gotten a little spread out in terms of keeping pucks alive. So we talked about them working together a little tighter, so that they can keep pucks alive and make plays. They’re all very good players. They’ve got good pedigree in terms of what they’ve done all year for us. When they get really going, that’ll be really helpful for us.”
It would also help Kuznetsov, who is keenly aware of his scoring drought. He was excellent in the postseason last year, scoring a series-clinching Game 7 goal against the Islanders, becoming the third rookie in franchise history to have a three-point playoff game and leading all NHL rookies with five playoff goals.
“You know, dollar against Ruble last year is different too,” he quipped.
So he talked this weekend about focusing on his team’s progress rather than his own production, not worrying about “what did you do wrong” and remaining patient.
“I just have to don’t [question] yourself, stay positive always, try to be better,” he said. “Maybe hockey god just give you another game, and see how you’re feeling, how you’re going to practice, how you’re going to play.”
But it’s hard to separate Kuznetsov’s production from his team’s success. The Capitals were 37-5-5 when he had a point this season and 19-13-3 when he didn’t. He led the NHL with 43 primary assists in the regular season. He has none in the postseason.
“I think he knows that sometimes the puck just won’t go in,” Burakovsky said. “I think he knows that he’s still playing good hockey. It’s just a matter of time.”
“Kuzy’s the nucleus that stirs the drink,” Williams said. “You give him the puck, usually something good is going to happen. We’ve just been a little off. But we’re working hard, we’re certainly aware of it and we’re looking to respond and introduce ourselves to the playoffs.”