ARLINGTON VA. – The leading scorer in this year’s playoffs took part in a full Washington Capitals practice Friday morning and a nervous fan base breathed a collective sigh of relief. Evgeny Kuznetsov displayed few residual ill effects from the Brayden McNabb hit that knocked him out of Game 2 of the Stanley Cup final and will almost certainly be in the lineup for Game 3 Saturday night.
Alex Ovechkin is no doctor, nor does he play one on TV, but he provided the following update: “He’s one of our top guys. It was important to see him skating. I’m pretty sure he’s going to be OK (for Game 3).”
Kuznetsov did line drills, shot the puck a lot and took passes and while it looked as though his left hand was a little tender, it doesn’t look like it would be something that would keep him out of a game in the Stanley Cup final, which is enormous for the Capitals, who will play their first Stanley Cup final game on home ice in 20 years and try to win their first-ever final game at home. (The Capitals were swept by the Detroit Red Wings in 1998, the only other time they’ve made the final.)
But Kuznetsov has not been medically cleared to play as of yet and is listed as day-to-day. And there’s a very good chance he won’t be miraculously medically cleared until after the morning skate on Saturday. This is a little game that NHL teams play to shield their players. First, the longer they can hold off on definitively revealing Kuznetsov’s status, the more potential uncertainty they place in the minds of their opponents. Second, by saying Kuznetsove hasn’t been medically cleared he can still practice, while the Capitals are able to skirt NHL regulations that make all players who practice available to the media following the workout. Fun all around. The Capitals did the same thing with Nicklas Backstrom before he returned to the lineup from a hand injury in the Eastern Conference final.
The Capitals can say all the right things about the next man being up and how they could overcome the absence of Kuznetsov, but the fact remains the Capitals are a much better, far more dangerous team with him in the lineup. Even though Backstrom and Lars Eller were valiant in their Game 2 efforts in Kuznetsov’s absence – Eller was particularly good – the Capitals are obviously more of a threat with Kuznetsov than without him. Or as Kuznetsov’s linemate Tom Wilson put it: “You don’t need me to tell you that. He’s one of the best players around the league. Obviously we want him to play. But if not, it’s hockey, guys step up.”
The fact that Kuznetsov looks as though he’s able to play should come as no surprise. In the four full seasons Kuznetsov has played in the NHL, he’s missed a total of five games, including three this season with an upper body injury. Kuznetsov is not a pure shooter, in fact a lot of people would like to see him be a little more selfish in that respect, which means he’s often a target because he’s carrying the puck so much.
“He doesn’t get hit much, he’s pretty good with the puck,” Wilson said. “That might help. When a guy who is playing top-line minutes, spends so much time with the puck, lots of time on the ice, lots of minutes, it’s amazing to see how durable they can be. The expectations, the pressures every night and those superstars they’re expected to go out there and have an effect on every single game and they do. It’s definitely something that’s underrated around the league. You’re playing 100-plus games at this time of year and you’re still doing your thing. He’s a huge leader and he drives this team just like (Ovechkin) does, so we’re excited to see him out there skating around.”
There is actual a fan website in Washington called Russian Machine Never Breaks. If Kuznetsov can return for Game 3 after things looking so bleak for him Wednesday night, perhaps these guys are onto something.
“I think with Kuzy, when you’re a top player, people go after you,” said Capitals coach Barry Trotz. “I think he’s been pretty durable. He hasn’t missed a lot of games over the course of time. I think he’s able to rebound. He takes care of himself on and off the ice. His background coming over from Russia, they’re a tough group. They are. And he’s got some toughness to his game and he bounces back.”
Want more in-depth features and expert analysis on the game you love? Subscribe to The Hockey News magazine.