RALEIGH, N.C. — This isn’t about one guy, and we shouldn’t make it about one guy, because to eliminate the Carolina Hurricanes — forget, for a moment, about any run deep into the spring — the Washington Capitals are going to need the best versions of all 20 players who dress for Wednesday night’s Game 7. That’s how the Caps won the Cup. That’s how hockey works.
But one of those players led the entire league in points during last year’s Stanley Cup playoffs and now looks, essentially, lost. Evgeny Kuznetsov is supposed to be part of the solution, not just this spring but through 2025, the last year of his contract. Right now, he is part of the problem, a reason the Caps failed to finish off the Hurricanes and instead have a single game to extend their season.
Kuznetsov is not the sole reason the Capitals entered the final period of Monday night’s Game 6 tied but exited it with a 5-2 loss, a loss that allowed Carolina to force a seventh and decisive game in this first-round series Wednesday at Capital One Arena. But when your top players don’t perform like top players, these kinds of results become more predictable.
“We just didn’t have enough guys on board tonight to win a hockey game,” goaltender Braden Holtby said. “That’s going to have to change if we’re going to have success in Game 7.”
Kuznetsov is too talented to be a passenger. And everyone in the Capitals’ dressing room knows it.
What this presents, of course, is the specter of a seventh game on home ice — a development that should be comforting but that can cause Caps fans, even post-Cup, to break into flop sweat. During the magical 2018 run to the Stanley Cup, each of Washington’s series-clinching victories came somewhere other than the District. The most recent examples of Game 7s at home provide some of the franchise’s worst memories: 2017 against Pittsburgh, which was nothing short of debilitating; a 5-0 disaster against the New York Rangers in 2013; the 2010 first-round shocker against Montreal that felled a Presidents’ Trophy winner.
The Caps, now, have to openly embrace what’s to come against a Carolina team that — aside from Game 5 — has basically outplayed Washington over the course of the series.
“It’s nothing to hold back on and save it for,” Coach Todd Reirden said. “You’re all-in, and your team’s all-in.”
It had better be. That means everyone. You listening, Kuzy?
A year ago, Kuznetsov was both mesmerizing and consistent, an absolute force. Right now, he is either maddening or invisible, and it’s hard to say which is worse. A year ago, he had a dozen goals and 32 points in 24 postseason games across four series. This year, he has five assists in six games, which might seem like a fine number. But he hasn’t scored, and his impact has been negligible, unless he is fumbling the puck at the blue line as he tries a routine entry to the offensive zone on the power play.
Remember when he scored the goal that finally vanquished the Penguins? Man, does that seem many moons ago.
Todd, what are you seeing from Kuznetsov at the moment?
“I thought, obviously, we needed a little bit more from all our players tonight,” Reirden said.
Nicely dodged. Let’s bring out the coach-to-English translator: He wasn’t very good, he’s hurting rather than helping, that’s driving me mad, and he has to get better if we’re going to win.
The reality is this is something of an extension of the regular season for Kuznetsov, an all-world talent who ranks in the top 10 in the league in eccentricity. That’s amusing when things are going well. That’s frustrating when they’re not.
Kuznetsov’s disappearance is especially problematic because the Caps are without T.J. Oshie, probably done for the postseason with a broken collarbone. That makes the contrast with last year even more stark: When Tom Wilson was suspended or Nicklas Backstrom was out with a hand injury, that’s when Kuznetsov carried the Caps. Alex Ovechkin was the Conn Smythe winner as the playoffs MVP, but Kuzy was right there, worthy of consideration.
More about last year, because everything this spring is cast against it: The path then was the most arduous — and appropriate — available. There was the first-round escape against Columbus, and don’t characterize it as anything but, because the Caps lost the first two at home, then needed double overtime in Game 3. If you need a reminder of how difficult it is to win 16 games in a single spring, remember that the Caps were one clanked shot off the iron away from being in a three-game, first-round hole. That Ovechkin ever hoisted the Cup, that there ever was a rally on the Mall, it’s still something of a miracle.
And Columbus, that was the easy part. The mental mountain the Caps had to scale to beat Pittsburgh in the second round was Everest in elevation. And Tampa Bay? Tampa Bay was the best team in the East, and the Caps had to win Game 7 on the Lightning’s ice.
So maybe, come Thursday morning, this struggle will look like the kind of adversity hardened teams must overcome to get to the ultimate prize. But it sure feels dangerous.
“At this point, it doesn’t matter,” Holtby said. “It’s over with, and it’s down to one game.”
One game, for the right to play more. After Monday night’s loss, Kuznetsov emerged from the visitors’ dressing room in gray shorts and a gray Capitals pullover, heading with Carl Hagelin and Andre Burakovsky for a postgame workout. It’s part of the process, the routine, be it October or April. He was not among the players made available to the media to comment on the game, so he went about his work, immediately trying to flush his own performance.
That’s all that’s left now: Cleanse the body of Game 6, individually and collectively. Turn to Game 7 — on home ice — and see it for what it is: an opportunity.
“This is what we’ve worked for,” Reirden said, “and I’m looking forward to watching our team play that Game 7.”
He has to hope that Evgeny Kuznetsov is participating rather than watching, or it’s going to be a long summer wondering what went wrong.