WASHINGTON — No, Evgeny Kuznetsov was not comparing himself to Michael Jordan. Or maybe he was? It was a bit unclear exactly the analogy the Capitals forward was trying to make following Game 3 of the Stanley Cup Final, but not quite as unclear as Kuznetsov’s status in the hours leading into the pivotal game.
All that’s known was that Kuznetsov had an upper-body injury, somewhere in the region of his left arm. When he spoke to reporters after the Capitals’ 3-1 win over the Golden Knights on Saturday, he kept his left hand tucked in his shorts pocket. “Upper-body” was the designation, and Kuznetsov’s availably had been very much up in the air until he was a full participant in pregame line rushes literally minutes before puck drop.
When the puck did drop, Kuznetsov not only played, but played a starring role. He scored a goal in the second period that amounted to the game-winner and assisted on another, helping Washington take a 2-1 series lead over Vegas.
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So, back to Michael Jordan.
“It’s emotional stuff. You know, like Michael Jordan, when he plays his best game, he’s sore, right?” Kuznetsov said. “He got hurt but had 53 points.”
Are you comparing yourself to Michael Jordan?
“No, no, no.”
Maybe it’s been a refrain for the Capitals’ fractured and battered players this postseaon. Nicklas Backstrom returned after missing four games due what was surely a broken finger, only to record two assists in a must-win Game 6 in the East finals, a goal in Game 7, and a goal and two assists through the first two games of the Cup final.
“That’s what we need,” Lars Eller said. “There’s lots of guys playing with something. That’s what these players are made of.”
On Saturday, what the Capitals needed was Kuznetsov, who had an 11-game point streak in these playoffs (snapped only when he had to leave Game 2 due to the injury) and is taking down Capitals postseason scoring records by the game, to be that player.
And he was.
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“I feel like I can help the team,” he said. “And it worked out pretty well for us.”
Boy did it ever.
It wasn’t just the goal that showed Kuznetsov could play through whatever was or is ailing him. He logged 18:52 of ice time, including five minutes on the power play, more than any Capitals skater not named Alex Ovechkin.
After he scored, Kuznetsov nearly set up another goal. He carried the puck across the blue line off the rush, cutting into the teeth of the Golden Knights defense. After pulling up and drawing in a crowd of white sweaters, Kuznetsov slipped a pass to an undetected Tom Wilson. If not for a stellar glove save by Marc-Andre Fleury, Kuznetosv would have recorded his fourth three-plus point game of these playoffs.
“He’s a star player for us,” Capitals defenseman John Carlson said. “He’s fun to watch, fun to be around and I think he’s a big part of our team, a big hole if we have to fill it. But it’s no surprise. He’s a great player.”
The surprise was more rooted in Kuznetsov playing.
The Capitals need their great players to be great. They got the performance out of Ovechkin, and got one out of Kuznetsov, even if it took a bullish inspiration to push him that extra mile.
“When you’re hurt, you play a little better; always,” he said. “You have a little extra energy, and sometimes it’s even better for you when you watch the hockey from upstairs, and you see the little things.”
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Perhaps no moment was more tense in predicting Kuznetsov’s availability for Game 3 than practice on Friday, the day prior. Kuznetsov shot the puck gingerly, grimacing on the release, looking uncomfortable and uncertain about 24 hours from game time.
But there was no questioning his shot and release when it mattered most, after he ripped one past Marc-Andre Fleury and then did Kuznetsov Things, breaking out in his bird dance to properly coronate the moment.
“I think the shot is not my strong side,” Kuznetsov said. “But in that situation I looked for the pass, and when you have a chance to feed those guys who play on the PK a lot, who block a lot of shots, you want to make that pass for [Jay Beagle] but he wasn’t open that time.
“I had to shoot.”
There’s no knowing what Kuznetsov’s injury was or its severity (yet) — “Who said it was serious?” head coach Barry Trotz said — but the Capitals were staring down a serious problem if Kuznetsov could not play. They survived four games without Backstrom, the type of adversity-dodging a team can only navigate so many times in a single playoff.
“I felt very confident when I was on the plane coming back that he was going to be playing,” Trotz said, after not showing his hand (or Kuznetsov’s). “He was outstanding (in Game 3).”
That’s the best the Capitals could have hoped for. At times in this playoff run, he’s been Washington’s top Capital.
“One of the most dynamic players and can take over the league if he wants to and I think he’s that talented and sees the game better than anyone else,” Carlson said.
So take the wheel, Kuznetsov. Just grip it lightly with your left hand.
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