Kuznetsov quickly left the ice for the team’s dressing room and didn’t return in this 3-2 win, suffering from what the team is calling an upper body injury. Even as Washington shuffled its lines and generated plenty of offense Wednesday night, the severity of Kuznetsov’s injury looms large over the series as it shifts back to Washington for Game 3 on Saturday night.
Although Washington Coach Barry Trotz said Wednesday night he didn’t have an update on Kuznetsov’s injury — “He didn’t return,” Trotz said sternly — he added he believed McNabb’s hit was high and that it “galvanized” his team after the first period, when it held off a late Vegas push in the third period.
The question now for Washington is whether it can withstand the potential long-term loss of one of its most skilled players. After struggling to find a rhythm on questionable ice conditions during a 6-4 loss in Game 1, Kuznetsov had vowed to simplify his approach to help the Capitals even the series. He entered the game as the league’s leading postseason scorer with 11 goals and 14 assists in 20 games, and he had hoped to use his speed and crafty puck-handling ability to help counter the Golden Knights’ wide-open, fast-paced style. He didn’t get much of a chance after McNabb delivered a high check with just more than five minutes remaining in the first period. McNabb was not penalized on the play as Kuznetsov skated to the locker room.
May 28, 2018 at 1:20 PM EDT
Painting the town red
Best photos from the Washington Capitals’ run to their first appearance in the Stanley Cup finals in 20 years.
By undefined, undefined, undefined, undefined and undefined
“He’s been our best player in the playoffs so far. I mean, that’s tough,” Washington center Nicklas Backstrom said. “We’ll see what happens.”
The loss of Kuznetsov forced Trotz to shuffle personnel to accommodate for the absence of one of his most gifted players. With Kuznetsov out, Backstrom, who had missed four games earlier in the playoffs because of a right hand injury, centered the top line while Lars Eller centered a second line with forwards T.J. Oshie and Jakub Vrana. That trio had success when Backstrom was out because of a right hand injury at the start of the Eastern Conference finals.
The ripple effects didn’t stop there. Rookie Chandler Stephenson moved from fourth-line left wing to center the third line with Brett Connolly and Andre Burakovsky, who also had missed time earlier in the postseason.
Washington has overcome plenty of attrition over its playoff run the past two months, which included wins in three of the four games that Backstrom missed. Washington’s stars have been at the forefront during the entire postseason, and captain Alex Ovechkin provided yet another power-play goal Wednesday night.
But the Capitals manufactured offensive opportunities from a cast of secondary scorers, including Eller, who finished with a goal and two assists.
“It seems like he gets a different confidence when me and Kuzy go out,” said Backstrom, who had watched Eller step up in his absence earlier in the postseason. “He’s got that confidence with the puck and can make plays.”
Washington also received a goal from defenseman Brooks Orpik, who had scored just two goals in 132 playoff appearances before Wednesday night. It was the kind of rare play that seemed to underscore Washington’s effort to scrape out a victory after losing one of its best players.
The late stages of the game included a five-on-three penalty kill and a memorable stick save by Braden Holtby with less than two minutes left. That provided a glimpse of how Washington might psychologically respond to the potential long-term loss of Kuznetsov.
Trotz reminded everyone after the win that his team had responded to similar scenarios all postseason. The Capitals didn’t start Holtby to begin the playoffs. It endured an injury to Burakovsky. It weathered a three-game suspension to Tom Wilson. It played a slew of rookies to slay its rival Pittsburgh Penguins in the second round, and found success without Backstrom in the conference finals. Now it might have to do the same Kuznetsov’s status unknown.
“This group has everything thrown at them,” Trotz said. “And they say, ‘You know what? We’re just going to push on.’”
Read more Stanley Cup finals coverage: