A lot worked against the Capitals in Game 2 of this Stanley Cup Final. Their top center, Evgeny Kuznetsov, didn’t play beyond the first period because of what the team termed an “upper-body injury.” The Golden Knights got crack after crack at goals that would’ve swung the game. The Capitals hung on anyway, though, and evened the series with a 3-2 win.
The Capitals clung to victory in Game 2 by the paddle of a stick. Braden Holtby’s preposterous save against Alex Tuch, from eight feet out with 1:59 left, was the ultimate difference.
Washington was outshot, 39-26. The Golden Knights had a territorial advantage for a lot of the game, and the Capitals now move into an uncertain medical future with Kuznetsov. But Game 2 should leave them feeling tremendous about their chances no matter what.
Kuznetsov’s injury could’ve been devastating. But it wasn’t, because third-line center Lars Eller elevated his game in response.
That’s not anything new. Nicklas Backstrom hurt his right hand in Game 5 of the second round against the Penguins. One of his generation’s best passers, Backstrom has always been vital to the Capitals.
Eller had a goal and an assist the night Backstrom was hurt. Backstrom didn’t return until Game 3 of the conference final against the Lightning. In Games 1 and 2 of that series, Eller had two goals and two assists, including the winning tally in the second game.
Kuznetsov, the leading point-getter in these playoffs with 25, left after taking a high, heavy hit from Brayden McNabb late in the first period on Wednesday. Less than a minute after Kuznetsov skated to the dressing room, Eller scored in a four-on-four, casually finishing off a play after a sharp passing sequence by his teammates:
On Eller’s part, the goal was less impressive than what came next. On Washington’s first power play of the night, he replaced Kuznetsov on the team’s top unit. Eller received the puck along the goal line to Marc-Andre Fleury’s left and slipped a deft pass cross-crease to Alex Ovechkin, who was waiting to dunk it past the outstretched goalie.
A few minutes after that, Eller drew the Vegas defense toward him as he entered the offensive zone in transition. He left a soft pass for a trailing Brooks Orpik, and the lumbering defenseman scored his first goal since February 2016.
Eller is up to 17 points in 21 playoff games this spring, an outburst for him. Eller isn’t some kind of scrub. He’s notched at least 25 points in seven straight seasons, and his 18 regular-season goals this year were a career-best. But he’s been an average third-line center for most of the last decade, for five years in Montreal and the last two in Washington. No one in the playoffs has raised his game more.
The Capitals can win this series whether Kuznetsov comes back or not. They demonstrated as much in Game 2.
Winning in Vegas is hard. The Knights’ 29 home wins in the regular season were third-most in the league. Their 7-1 home record in the playoffs (entering Wednesday) was best in show. The crowd at T-Mobile Arena is bananas for its hockey team, and that place is loud.
Winning when you only get two power plays and the other team gets five is hard. So is winning when one of those man advantages is a five-on-three that lasts 69 seconds.
These were realities facing the Capitals in Game 2, and they won anyway. They executed a masterful penalty kill in the first six minutes of the third period, while both Tom Wilson and Eller sat in the box. In no world is it easy to kill a five-on-three for that long, but it’s extra hard when the two men in the sin bin are among your better penalty-killers.
The Capitals withstood all of it. Now they’re in great shape.
Home teams have had a difficult time holding serve in these playoffs. The Capitals are 4-5 in D.C., so them sweeping Games 3 and 4 and putting a tight grip on the series is a lot to ask.
But the home-ice advantage is now theirs, and that’s valuable. If Kuznetsov doesn’t return or comes back in a limited form, it will be a massive loss. But they’ve already shown that they can win without him on nights when so much else is going against them. There’s no reason they couldn’t keep doing that, especially so long as Eller keeps churning. He’s great fit on that power play, a crafty passer in a group loaded with finishers.
And if the NHL’s officiating crew continues its trend from Game 2 of calling more penalties in general than it did in Game 1, it should benefit the team with the power play that’s clicked at almost 30 percent in the playoffs. That’s the Capitals, not the 20-percent Golden Knights.
The Capitals’ playoff run has been an exercise in keeping going. They’ve trailed in every series they’ve played, and they’ve now had to play without one of their all-world centers for a second time. Nothing has stopped them yet. Why should this be the thing that does?