Washington Capitals forward Evgeny Kuznetsov, who was injured during the first period in Game 2 of the Stanley Cup Final and did not return, is expected to play Saturday night when the NHL championship series resumes at Capital One Arena here. The Capitals and the Vegas Golden Knights split the first two games in Las Vegas.
Kuznetsov, who leads all playoff scorers with 25 points, took part in the Capitals’ morning skate on Saturday at the team’s practice facility in Arlington, Va., and was in his usual spot on the top line between Alex Ovechkin and Tom Wilson. He sustained an apparent upper-body injury in Game 2 on a check by Vegas defenseman Brayden McNabb, a hit Kuznetsov called a hockey play. The Capitals still managed to win 3-2, boosted by goaltender Braden Holtby’s spectacular paddle save on a point-blank shot by Alex Tuch.
Coach Barry Trotz said Kuznetsov’s participation would be a game-time decision and Kuznetsov said, “We’ll see. It feels better every day,” when asked if he’d play. However, all indications were that he will play in Washington’s first home Stanley Cup Final game since 1998, and his teammates were happily anticipating he’d be in uniform.
“Any day Kuzy's in the lineup is a benefit. But Kuzy's a professional and he'll decide if he's going to be a benefit to the team or not,” Holtby said. “Our job is just to focus on playing, regardless if he's in or out. Because we know if he's in, he's going to be prepared and ready to go, and if he's not, we're going to be prepared to make up for that. Either way, we're comfortable.”
Said Ovechkin: “He’s back, he’s skating. So it’s pretty cool.”
Vegas coach Gerard Gallant said Kuznetsov’s presence or absence would not affect his own plans.
“Makes no difference to us,” Gallant said. “Obviously, we know he’s a great hockey player. I’m sure they’d love to have him in their lineup. But nothing changes for our group if he plays. He’s an important player for them, definitely, but it won’t change anything we do.”
The Capitals are 4-5 at home in the playoffs this spring, including losses in their first two games in the first round against Columbus. However, they staved off elimination in Game 6 of the East Conference final by defeating Tampa Bay at home on May 21. That was their most recent home game, and fans are sure to be hyped to see the team again Saturday night. Trotz said he hopes his players can control their emotions, especially in the first few minutes of the game.
“I just want us to be real sharp. Come out on our toes and make sure that we’re managing, get our shift length at a respectable level. Play with some pace. Keep it simple early,” he said. “We don’t know how the ice conditions are going to be in our rink. Just as we learned in Vegas for Game 1, there’s new logos, there’s new fresh ice. I know the NHL has been working on that. I think Vegas skated on it [Friday] and probably this morning.
“Humidity is not kind to ice. One thing I’ve learned over my years is it’s not necessarily the heat but the humidity. If you get the combination of both, you could have a tough night. We’ll just see how it is. Early, let’s get the adrenaline going and the nerves down. Let everybody get involved, and let’s play. Get our fans into it, give us some energy, and we’ll go.”
The weather forecast for Saturday afternoon and evening called for thunderstorms, and the humidity was at 64% at about 2 p.m. Eastern time. The Golden Knights skated at Capital One Arena on Saturday morning and had no complaints about the ice.