LAS VEGAS — Evgeny Kuznetsov released the puck. Brayden McNabb, a defenseman for the Vegas Golden Knights, smashed him against the boards with a forceful check. The Washington Capitals center’s left arm was pinned against his body, and he held it gingerly as he fell to the ice and left for the trainers’ room with 5:18 remaining in the first period of Game 2 of the Stanley Cup Final.
In postseason failures of yore, this would have been the moment when it all unraveled for Washington. He’s the Capitals’ No. 1 center. He’s the leading scorer in the playoffs. He’s as essential as they come.
But onto the mounting pile of evidence that this Capitals team is indeed different than those also-rans goes their resiliency in evening the series with the Golden Knights at 1-1 following a 3-2 win on Wednesday night. They lost Kuznetsov. They refused to lose the game.
“Good response by all of us,” said captain Alex Ovechkin. “We lost our top guy. But those guys play extra minutes, extra shifts, and whatever it takes.”
Those guys were Nicklas Backstrom, who moved up to the top line to skate with Ovechkin and Tom Wilson; Lars Eller, who was the Capitals’ best skater in Game 2 after being challenged with anchoring the second line; as well as Jay Beagle and Chandler Stephenson, whose ice time increased and who played admirably.
“I don’t know, but the more I am out there the better I feel with the puck, better flow in my game,” said Eller, who had a goal and two assists in the win. “We just … play on instincts. Like I said, the more I am out there, the better I feel.”
Eller has done this before, of course. Backstrom injured his hand blocking a shot in Game 5 against the Pittsburgh Penguins. He missed the Capitals’ clinching Game 6, and then the first three games of their series against the Tampa Bay Lightning. Eller had a goal and an assist in Game 5 against Pittsburgh; he had two goals and three assists in the first three games against the Lightning.
If Kuznetsov misses time in the Stanley Cup Final, the Capitals are practiced in the art of resiliency.
“I don’t know how it’s going to be,” said Capitals winger T.J. Oshie. “It’ll be a big loss, but as you saw in the Pittsburgh series when Nick went down, sometimes that kind of energizes some other guys to get in there and be able to make some plays. So, we’ll roll with the punches, we’ll see what happens, but we’re hoping that he’s OK.”
Oshie said “energizes.” Coach Barry Trotz preferred “galvanizes” to describe what the hit did for his team, especially since the Caps felt McNabb’s check may have crossed the line of legality.
“The hit on Kuzy … we thought it was high,” said Trotz. “You lose one of your top players on what we feel is a questionable hit. The league will look at it. But your bench rallies around it.”
After a Game 1 effort that neither team was pleased about, the Capitals were back on their formula of postseason success: tough, physical defense that sucked the creativity out of the Vegas offense, in front of a stellar effort from goalie Braden Holtby. Trotz indicated that losing Kuznetsov could be a pivot point in the series — oddly, in the Capitals’ favor, despite his importance to the lineup.
“That really galvanized us,” he said. “Lars had to step into that role like he did with Backy in previous series. You get an all-in mentality. I know how resilient this group has been all year. I think that might be a turning point for us.”
They might not have been in the Stanley Cup Final before. But they’ve been in this spot before.
“I think this group has learned so much. They’ve gotten so resilient. I don’t think there are many people in the hockey world that thought when we lost Backstrom in the Pittsburgh series that you were going to see the Washington Capitals get out of that round,” said Trotz. “This group has had everything thrown at them and they just say, ‘You know what? We’re going to push on.'”