WASHINGTON (TNS) — Evgeny Kuznetsov discarded his leg-raising, arm-flapping, bird-walk goal-scoring celebration last season after someone told him it had brought bad luck to the Washington Capitals, whose postseason misfortunes already were legendary. But because his young daughter Ecenia missed the routine, he revived it this season. On Saturday, powered by his happy flapping, he and his team took flight and soared into the lead in the Stanley Cup Final.
An injury to his left arm — should that be wing? — cut Kuznetsov's ice time in Game 2 and cast doubt on his participation in Game 3. Showing no signs of an injury, he scored a goal and added an assist to lead the charged-up Capitals to a 3-1 victory over the disheveled Vegas Golden Knights at Capital One Arena, and a 2-1 edge in the Final, a margin that doesn't reflect Washington's growing strength.
Playing their first Cup Final home game in nearly 20 years, the Capitals were energized from the start, and a lunging swat by Alex Ovechkin that gave them the lead at 1:10 of the second period sent the crowd into a frenzy. By the end, after pressuring Vegas' defense into turnovers and panicky misplays, they just might have seized control of the Final, though Kuznetsov was too polite to say so.
"I don't know," said the Russian-born center, who leads all playoff scorers with 27 points. "It's huge game and we got the lead but you have to have short memory, you have to get rest and focus on the next game."
That game will be played at Washington on Monday and will be the first real adversity for the Golden Knights. The defensive flaws that led the Ducks to trade defenseman Shea Theodore in exchange for Vegas' assurance it would not claim Sami Vatanen or Josh Manson in the expansion draft have become obvious the past two games — not coincidentally, the first time the Golden Knights have lost two straight playoff contests. On Saturday, one bad pinch by Theodore led to the Washington two-on-one that Kuznetsov capped with a shot from the right circle at 12:50 of the second period, a goal that doubled the lead. "I tried making a play and it didn't go the way I planned and that's something I'd like to have back," Theodore said.
After Vegas forward Tomas Nosek turned a giveaway by Braden Holtby into a goal at 3:29 of the third period, Theodore turned the puck over to Washington forward Jay Beagle, who set up Devante Smith-Pelly — another former Duck — for an easy goal at 13:53 that deflated Vegas' comeback hopes. "I've got to be better all over the ice and definitely recharge (Sunday) and get back at it," Theodore said. "You have to have a short memory on these type of things and it's a seven-game series."
At this rate, it won't last that long. "All year we've had a lot of guys going. That hasn't been the case," Vegas defenseman Deryk Engelland said, adding that goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury deserved better. "Our goalie's been bailing us out with huge saves all night and we have to bear down and be better for him."
This is heady stuff for the Capitals, who earned their first-ever home victory in the Cup Final. Kuznetsov has been a big part of this, displaying otherworldly skill and impeccable timing. "He's been great all season; the last couple seasons, really," Washington defenseman John Carlson said. "He's one of the most dynamic players and can take over the league if he wants to. I think he's that talented and he sees the game better than anyone else."
After he took a hard check from Vegas defenseman Brayden McNabb and left Game 2, it was unclear if Kuznetsov would play Saturday. The team called his participation a game-time decision. In his mind, the decision was made and was firm.
"I try to stay positive and don't even think if I want to play or not," he said. "Of course I want to play but you have to understand, can you help the team or not? That's the toughest part."
Did he help? He smiled. "I believe," he said, and the Capitals have reason to believe their long and dismal playoff history has taken a decided turn for the better.