WASHINGTON — The bird is back.
If there were any concerns that Evgeny Kuznetsov wasn’t at 100 per cent after leaving Game 2 with an apparent wrist injury, the Washington Capitals’ leading scorer put them to rest in a 3-1 victory against the Golden Knights on Saturday night.
The wrist sure wasn’t bothering him when Kuznetsov took a shot that led to the game’s first goal. Or when he scored on a wrist shot in the second period. And it certainly wasn’t bothering him when he skated down the ice and waved his arms in a flappy bird celebration that opponents have seen way too much during these playoffs.
“You know, Michael Jordan, when he played his best game he was hurt and got 53 points,” said Kuznetsov, who finished with a goal and an assist. “When you’re hurt, you play better always. You have extra energy. Sometimes it’s even better for you.”
This was Kuznetsov at his Jordan-esque best. This was Washington at its best.
It had been 20 years since the Capitals had hosted a Stanley Cup final at home. And the players gave the sold-out sea of red plenty to cheer about, as Kuznetsov had a two-point night, Jay Beagle had two assists, and Alex Ovechkin scored his franchise-record tying 14th goal of the playoffs.
With the win, Washington heads into Game 4 on Monday with a 2-1 series lead, two wins away from a first-ever Stanley Cup.
“It’s a huge game and we got the lead,” said Kuznetsov. “But we have short memory. We have to get rest and focus on the (next) game. The next game is a huge game. Right now, we just have to rest for sure and not think about it.”
It was in Game 2 when Kuznetsov left the first period clutching his left arm after receiving a hard hit from Vegas’ Brayden McNabb. He had been a game-time decision heading into Saturday night, but head coach Barry Trotz seemed confident the “tough Russian” would find a way to play.
The Capitals had managed to win without Kuznetsov in Game 2, but his return was a huge sigh of relief. Ovechkin might be the team’s emotional leader and Conn Smythe Trophy favourite. But Kuznetsov, who scored the series clincher against the Penguins in the second round and who leads the playoffs with 27 points, has arguably been their best player.
He certainly earned that distinction in Game 3.
“He’s a hard working guy but if he has a chance to create, he will,” Ovechkin said of Kuznetsov. “He’s a top centreman in the league.”
“He’s a star player for us,” said defenceman John Carlson. “He’s a big part of our team. A big hole if we have to fill it.”
Vegas hit two posts and Ovechkin was robbed on a two-on-one by a gorgeous splits save by Marc-Andre Fleury, but there were no goals in the first period. The closest any team came was when Capitals forward Chandler Stephenson sailed a shot past Fleury, but it was immediately waved off because of a goalie interference penalty on Devante Smith-Pelly.
It was the right call. Smith-Pelly was trying to screen Fleury on the play, but went one step further when he jumped and collided with the Vegas goalie’s head, making it impossible for Fleury to see or stop the puck.
Things got only tougher for Fleury in the second, as Washington outshot Vegas 14-8 and took a 2-0 lead on goals from Ovechkin and Kuznetsov.
Ovechkin’s came 70 seconds into the period on a play that resembled a shooting gallery. First, John Carlson took a shot that Fleury saved. Then Kuznetsov took one. Then Carlson. And finally, Ovechkin put the puck in the net on a leaping backhand lunge.
Midway through the second period, Kuznetsov made it 2-0 on a breakaway goal that began with a bad pinch by Vegas’ Shea Theodore.
“It’s not as good as a goal, but I want it in his hands if it’s between me and him, that’s for sure,” Beagle said his breakaway pass to Kuznetsov. “He’s obviously one of our key guys.”
Up 2-0 in the third, Vegas made it a one-goal game on a giveaway from Braden Holtby. It could have been a turning point. Instead, the Capitals bailed out a goalie who had bailed them out so many times in these playoffs.
Once again, it came off another defensive gaffe from Theodore. And once again, it was Beagle stealing the puck, who then found Smith-Pelly in front to make it 3-1.
“I knew he was going to have trouble,” Beagle said of Theodore. “I was maybe expecting him to turn around and go the other way, and it kind of got away from him … fortunately, it ended up on my stick.”
Two more wins like that and Washington might really give its fans something to cheer about.
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