Evgeni Kuznetsov

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Uncertainty with Kuznetsov threatens to hang over Capitals

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ARLINGTON, Va. — They’re no longer defending Stanley Cup champions, don’t know if one of their best players will be eligible for opening night, are over the salary cap ceiling and face expiring contracts for two franchise cornerstones after the season.

That parade feels like a long time ago.

No bigger question confronts the Washington Capitals at the start of training camp than the uncertain status of center Evgeny Kuznetsov, who tested positive for cocaine at the world championships. Kuznetsov has already been suspended from international play for four years and could face further discipline from the NHL.

”Teammates, from what I’ve gathered, have been supportive,” general manager Brian MacLellan said Thursday. ”Also, I think they’d like to hear from him at some point and he’ll address the team and just talk about his situation. I think that would be an important step for the whole team to move forward.”

Kuznetsov voluntarily entered the NHL/NHLPA Substance Abuse and Behavioral Health Program and met with Commissioner Gary Bettman on Monday. The team did not make Kuznetsov available to reporters like other players on media day because the NHL has not decided whether to levy further punishment.

League officials are occupied with collective bargaining negotiations but should make a determination on Kuznetsov well before the regular season opens. Washington visits defending champion St. Louis in the season opener Oct. 2.

”He realizes he makes mistake,” captain and fellow Russian Alex Ovechkin said. ”Sometimes the best thing is just support him and be at his side.”

Kuznetsov has plenty of support from teammates but is far from the only unknown for the Capitals this season. They may need to make a move before camp ends to get under the $81.5 million salary cap and still need to work on getting extensions done with center Nicklas Backstrom and goaltender Braden Holtby.

MacLellan talked to Holtby’s agent a few days ago and plans to meet with Backstrom’s camp soon. Each player can be an unrestricted free agent next summer.

”We’re going to communicate with both players,” MacLellan said. ”Both guys have been a big part of our organization, big part of our success. We’d love to keep both. We’re going to play it out until the end here.”

Holtby said he watched fellow goalie Sergei Bobrovsky‘s situation with Columbus last season in the final year of his contract and wants to make sure everyone is on the same page. Bobrovsky signed a $70 million, seven-year deal with Florida that would seem to set the market for Holtby, who might be hard-pressed to fit under Washington’s cap.

”There’s always that area where you can work with, but at the same time you have a responsibility to the other players in the league, too,” Holtby said. ”When it comes down to something like that, you can figure out what’s best for all sides and go through that kind of thing.”

Holtby backstopped the Capitals to their first title in franchise history, but the presence of top goaltending prospect Ilya Samsonov and 2014 second-round pick Vitek Vanecek may make it easier for the team to move on. Samsonov and Vanecek will have the opportunity in camp to compete with Pheonix Copley for the backup job.

Backstrom has no such potential replacement coming. The 31-year-old Swede has been Ovechkin’s running mate for more than a decade and figures to play out the rest of his career in Washington – assuming a deal can be reached.

”We’ve been together since Day 1, and the chemistry that we have on the ice is tremendous,” Ovechkin said. ”I hope he’s going to stay.”

On the ice, the Capitals hope to have defenseman Michal Kempny back for the start of the season after surgery in April to repair a torn left hamstring. Winger T.J. Oshie‘s right shoulder is 100 percent after breaking his collarbone in the playoffs.

PHT’s Three Stars: Kuznetsov does it again

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1st star: Evgeny Kuznetsov, Washington Capitals

Four assists in Game 4. Thirty-one playoff points this season.

Kuznetsov is having a historic run and he is showing no signs of slowing down.

He was a question mark to even play in Game 3, but did and had a goal and an assist, and he kept on rolling along in Game 4 as he makes one heck of a case for the Conn Smythe Trophy, should Washington close this out.

2nd star: T.J. Oshie, Washington Capitals

The power-play goal that started the barrage and two assists on Washington’s fourth and fifth goals of the game.

Oshie has six points in four games in this series now and has provided the Capitals with some offensive help outside of Kuznetsov and Ovechkin. It’s exactly what the doctor ordered for the series.

3rd star: Braden Holtby, Washington Capitals

It sure is tempting to put the posts behind Holtby here. They played a part, that’s for sure, but Holtby continued to be everything Marc-Andre Fleury had been coming into the series.

Holtby has taken on the role of being the best goalie in the playoffs at the best possible time.

Yeah, he got lucky on a few attempts, but he also made 28 saves, including six while Vegas was on the power play.

He’s been the better goalie in the series by far and was the wall Washington needed him to be once again.

Highlight of the Night

There are several candidates here — a lot of nice goals scored tonight — but Devante Smith-Pelly‘s stands above the rest, 1. because it was the game winner, and 2. the footwork he displayed to get the puck to his stick was simply stunning.

Key Factoids

It’s been nearly 80 years since a team came back from a 3-1 deficit in the Stanley Cup Final.

And…

Stanley Cup Final schedule
Game 1 Monday, May 28 – Golden Knights 6, Capitals 4
Game 2 Wednesday, May 30 – Capitals 3, Golden Knights 2
Game 3 Saturday, June 2 – Capitals 3, Golden Knights 1 
Game 4 Monday, June 4 – Capitals 6, Golden Knights 2 (Washington leads series 3-1)
Game 5 Thursday, June 7 – Capitals at Golden Knights, 8 p.m. ET (NBC)
Game 6* Sunday, June 10 – Golden Knights at Capitals, 8 p.m. ET (NBC)
Game 7* Wednesday, June 13 – Capitals at Golden Knights, 8 p.m. ET (NBC)

* = If necessary

MORE:

• NBC’s Stanley Cup Playoff Hub
• Stanley Cup Final Guide


Scott Billeck is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @scottbilleck

Lightning survive barrage to even series with Capitals

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The Eastern Conference Final is now a best-of-3 series after the Tampa Bay Lightning survived a third-period onslaught by the Washington Capitals to even things at 2-2 with a 4-2 win on Thursday night.

The Capitals have been laying siege on Andrei Vasilevskiy and Co. over the past two games, but after jumping out to a 2-0 series lead on the road in Tampa, all of their best efforts have been for naught as the Lightning found a way to gain a lead and then manage to hold onto it for dear life.

The Caps have simply been the better team 5-on-5, but the Lightning picked a good night to figure out how to put pucks in the net in that situation.

Coming into the game, the Lightning’s even strength play produced only three goals. Nearly all of their damage came with the man-advantage and it didn’t help them as they fell in a 0-2 rut and through three games they had been outscored 8-3 at 5-on-5.

[PHT’s Three Stars: Killorn’s goal, Vasilevskiy’s saves lead Lightning in Game 4]

Tampa was a good even strength team during the regular season and their overall CF% has been quite good in the playoffs so far, but they’ve taken a step back in that department in this series.

Brayden Point‘s game-tying goal in the first period and Alex Killorn‘s game-winner in the third were just what the doctor ordered, then.

Killorn’s tally may have been at 5-on-5, but the Caps had just barelykilled off a penalty when the Lightning forward scored.

The goal broke the deadlock after Evgeny Kuzenetsov provided the equalizer in the second frame thanks to some dirty backhand sauce from Alex Ovechkin, who hasn’t scored in either of the losses.

An empty-net goal later and the Lightning fly back home having stolen two from under the Caps’ noses.

Given the volume of shots being thrown Vasilevskiy’s way during Washington’s two home games, the Capitals are probably a little unlucky at the moment.

Vasilevskiy has stopped 36 shots in each of the past two games, both 4-2 wins for the Lightning.

Nicklas Backstrom returned after missing the first three games of the series (and four total) with a hand injury. He played 18:51 and was a minus-one with four shots on goal. Not the return the Capitals would have hoped for from one of the league’s premier set-up men.

It’s going to be a long 48 hours in Washington, a lot of time for both players and fans to stew over what’s happened in this series. The Caps have never won a series when they won the first two games on the road.

They’ve managed to fend off one curse this postseason. It appears a second one awaits now.

The race to two begins on Saturday night in Game 5 (7:15 p.m. ET, NBC).

MORE:
• 
Conference Finals schedule, TV info
• 
NBC’s Stanley Cup Playoff Hub

Scott Billeck is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @scottbilleck

Trotz: ‘We weren’t good enough to win this hockey game’

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The Washington Capitals were out-shot 15-4 and fell behind 2-0 in the opening period of Game 2 on Saturday afternoon – that was the difference in the eyes of coach Barry Trotz.

“We didn’t play our best game for 60 minutes. You can’t get away with that. You can’t get around that. You’ve got to go through those things so full credit to them,” said Trotz. “We weren’t good enough to win this hockey game. The Rangers deserved to win the hockey game.

“To me, it was our start, it was our degree of desperation level… it was higher on their side than it was on ours. They capitalized on that.”

Chris Kreider opened the scoring 38-seconds into the first and Dan Boyle had his first of the playoffs giving New York an early lead at MSG.

“I think after what happened [Thursday], we were all upset,” said Henrik Lundqvist. “I was really annoyed and it really bothered me, so you try to use that energy to bring it over into this game and be determined that we need this one. I think the first period we played one of our better periods.”

Washington out-shot New York 28-20 in the final 40 minutes including 12-8 in the third period, but was unable to find the equalizer falling 3-2.

“I think we matchup very well, I think there’s some things that they do extremely well, I think there’s some things we can do a little bit better, if we do that, then who knows? The series can turn on a dime some times,” said Trotz.

“I think we’re two teams that are quite evenly matched. It’ll be interesting coming back in our building.”

Jason Chimera, who assisted on Evgeny Kuznetsov’s fourth of the playoffs, agreed the start was the difference.

“A slow start hurt us,” Chimera said. “Anytime you dig yourself a 2-0 hole in a building like this, it’s hard to come back. (In) afternoon games, you have to get up for them. You have to get ready.

“You have to have a short memory in the playoffs. Hopefully we can come back in our barn. We have home ice and we have to take advantage of that.”

Game 3 goes Monday night at the Verizon Center.

Rangers hang on, even series with Caps

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Entering Saturday’s game between the Washington Capitals and New York Rangers much of the talk centered around the standard of officiating in the playoffs.

Rangers’ coach Alain Vigneault wasn’t happy with how things ended in Game 1 following Nicklas Backstrom’s hit on Dan Boyle. Barry Trotz told reporters on Saturday morning he didn’t feel things changed much in the postseason.

Officiating took a back seat to the goaltending performances by Braden Holtby and Henrik Lundqvist in Game 2.

Lundqvist made 30 saves back-stopping the Rangers to a 3-2 win evening the series at 1-1.

Holtby finished with 32 saves in the loss.

“(Holtby) kept us in the first. We weren’t good, we weren’t winning any races, but he’s grown as a goaltender, and he will continue to grow,” said Trotz.”He’s just entering the prime of his career right now. There’s a lot of good things that he’s learned this year and he will to continue to learn.”

The win snapped a six-game losing streak for the Rangers in Game 2s on home ice dating back to 1996.

Chris Kreider and Boyle gave New York a 2-0 lead after one period.

Boyle’s goal, which came with Joel Ward off for hooking, was the first power play goal allowed by the Capitals in these playoffs.

Evgeny Kuznetsov’s fourth of the playoffs got the Caps on the board in the second period.

Derick Brassard scored the eventual game-winner at 6:07 of the third.

Alex Ovechkin scored in highlight-reel fashion to pull the Caps to within one midway through the third; however, there were no last-second heroics from Washington on Saturday afternoon.

“I thought they had some good looks at the end there. Hank had to come up with a couple big saves,” said Vigneault of the final minutes. “They pulled their goaltender and they were coming at us with everything they’ve got.

“Our guys were working real hard and every time we were real close to getting it out, they were finding a way to pull it back in. It was a tough last couple minutes.”

New York’s last eight playoff wins have all been by one goal.

Game 3 goes Monday night at the Verizon Center in Washington. You can catch the game at 7:30 p.m. ET on NBCSN.