Evgeny Kuznetsov had put all possible questions about his pain threshold to rest by merely taking his first shift of Saturday night’s Stanley Cup finals Game 3 at Capital One Arena. Whatever the severity of his injury, believed to be to his left wrist, it was enough to knock the Washington Capitals forward out of Game 2 three nights earlier.
But it was not enough to stop him from igniting an odd-man rush in the second period Saturday before deciding he would take the shot himself, beating Vegas Golden Knights goalie Marc-Andre Fleury with a wicked wrister for a 2-0 Washington lead that turned into an eventual 3-1 victory.
It didn’t matter that the 26-year-old Russian was potentially not 100 percent healthy in that moment, only that his wrister was strong enough to beat Fleury.
“I feel like I can help the team,” Kuznetsov said. “It seemed to work out pretty well for us.”
The Capitals were certainly more emotional than Vegas in the first Stanley Cup game in the District in two decades, especially as the game wore on. After his goal at the 12:50 mark of the second period, Kuznetsov flapped his wings, the customary celebration all postseason. On the bench, captain Alex Ovechkin — who had scored the first goal of the night to give him 14 in the postseason, tying a franchise postseason record — screamed to the rafters as teammates mobbed Kuznetsov.
“Right now, it’s just automatic,” Ovechkin said of his emotions.
It felt different than Wednesday night, when the Capitals watched Kuznetsov skate off the ice in the first period clutching his left wrist after a collision with Vegas’s Brayden McNabb. The Capitals thought the hit was high and believed it had galvanized their group in a 3-2 win.
Washington didn’t need anything of the sort Saturday, but the team still displayed plenty of mettle in the victory. That included a pair of memorable plays in the second period: defenseman Matt Niskanen outskating Vegas’s Shea Theodore to a bouncing puck and picking up another penalty when he was tripped by Fleury. It also included T.J. Oshie blocking a Vegas shot for the umpteenth time and watching it squirt out for a potential breakaway.
It also included Kuznetsov, whose durability has long been underrated, playing through his injury and picking up that puck that Oshie had blocked. He had already fallen into a rhythm earlier in the night, including within the first few minutes, when he laid a perfect pass to Ovechkin on a two-on-one that looked as if it would result in a surefire goal. Fleury robbed Ovechkin, but it was clear in that moment that Washington’s Russians would play up to the level of their blockbuster talent.
After Ovechkin scored his goal to make it 1-0 just 70 seconds into the second period, Kuznetsov had his best chance of the night after Oshie had sacrificed his body. Veteran Jay Beagle picked up the puck and quickly moved it to Kuznetsov, who blasted down the right side.
“It’s not as good as a goal, but I want it out of my hands if it’s me and him, that’s for sure,” Beagle said of his pass to Kuznetsov, who didn’t hesitate to shoot despite not being on his strong side.
Just a day earlier, Kuznetsov looked as though he might be limited after suffering the injury. But he woke up Saturday morning and knew in his gut that he could help his team win and take an upper hand in this most unexpected series. He did it with a smile on his face, too. When asked whether he had overcome pain to deliver this performance, he just smiled and referenced Michael Jordan, who always seemed to find another level with his play on the hardwood when he was hurt over his career. A reporter asked Kuznetsov whether he was comparing himself to the former basketball star.
“No, no, no,” he said with a boyish laugh. “But when you’re hurt, you play better, always.”