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Can Kuznetsov adequately replace Backstrom?

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Can Kuznetsov adequately replace Backstrom?

With Nicklas Backstrom uncertain over whether he’ll be ready for the Capitals’ Oct. 10 season opener following offseason hip surgery, 23-year-old Russian Evgeny Kuznetsov will be thrust into the spotlight as the Caps’ top-line center.

And while the second-line center is hesitant to talk about his ability to handle the added pressure, his teammates are willing to speak for him – and for the need for Backstrom to take his time with his rehab.

“I know guys that have had (hip surgery) and come back feeling great,” Caps defenseman Matt Niskanen said. “But I’m sure like any injury things can be delayed and it could be stiff and it might take a while. But (Backstrom) is young enough (27) where he should be fine and when he’s ready to play he’ll be good. He’s that kind of player.”

As for Kuznetsov, who finished his first full NHL season with 11 goals, 26 assists and a plus-10 rating, Niskanen said he’s excited to see what he’ll do with the opportunity of playing with top-line talent like Alex Ovechkin and T.J. Oshie.   

“He proved it,” Niskanen said. “He got better and better as the year went on and played his best in the last 20 games and in the playoffs. That’s a good sign. I don’t think anyone is questioning who’s going to be in that spot after the last couple months (of last season).

“Now the challenge for him is to still keep getting better. Can he keep going? He may flat line for a month or something, but he looks good. He’s smiling every day and I’m not worried about him at all. He’s going to have a really good year again.”

Taken by the Caps with the 26th overall pick of the 2010 NHL draft, Kuznetsov made Caps fans wait until the final month of the 2013-14 season to get a glimpse of his talent. He finished that season with five goals and two assists in 17 games under Adam Oates.

When Barry Trotz replaced Oates the following season, Kuznetsov won the job of second-line center and grew stronger as the season wore on, finishing tied with Ovechkin with a team-high five playoff goals.

“I think it’s going to be his best year because last year helped him a lot to be more NHL-ready,” said Caps’ right wing prospect Stan Galiev, who played on a line with Kuznetsov on Russian national teams. “He’s a game-changer, for sure.

“He knows the system and he’ll be more ready. He’s going to have more goals, more points. And he’s a leader. He’s something special and we’re lucky to have a guy like him on our team.”

Kuznetsov declined to talk much about the improvements he’d like to make in his game – “We have coaches to talk about that,” he said – but he admits he can be better than he was last season.

“I know my bad side and what I have to do better,” he said. “I want to be better. Every hockey player wants to be better every day. I’m young and I want to win something, right?”

Kuznetsov spent most of last season on a second line with left wing Marcus Johansson and right wing Troy Brouwer. Ideally, the Caps would like to see him centering a second line with Marcus Johansson or Andre Burakovsky on his left and Justin Williams on his right. But Kuznetsov says he’s willing to play with anyone the coaching staff deems compatible.

“It’s hard to say right now but my mentality is I’m ready to play any position,” he said. “Every guy is important to our team.”

And that includes, Backstrom, Kuznetsov said.

“I hope Nicky gets ready for the first game,” he said. “You always want to see your best center to play first game because if you see the last five games, (teams) battle for wild card, one point. You don’t want to lose those points in the first few games. You need those points. Sometime one point and you’re out.”

MORE CAPITALS: Backstrom won't rush his return

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NHL Power Rankings: A rough week

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USA TODAY Sports

NHL Power Rankings: A rough week

The Caps are coming off of one of, if not the worst week of their season. Washington has now lost three of four games and all three of those losses came in devastating fashion.

On Feb. 11, the Caps hosted a scuffling Detroit Red Wings team and saw the Wings build a 4-1 lead in the second period, a period in which the Caps were outshot 17-2. Washington battled back to tie the game, but ultimately lost in overtime. Tuesday in Winnipeg the Caps held a 3-1 lead in the third period, but allowed the Jets to mount a comeback and tie the game with just 15 seconds remaining in regulation before losing in overtime. Then, of course, there was Saturday's 7-1 blowout at the hands of the Chicago Blackhawks, a team that had lost eight straight coming into that game.

SEE THIS WEEK'S NHL POWER RANKINGS HERE

To make matters worse, the Pittsburgh Penguins keep on winning and now hold a one-point lead over Washington. So yeah, things were not great.

The bad news is that, with the recent surges of Pittsburgh, Philadelphia and even New Jersey, the Caps have to figure things out fast or they could continue to fall in the standings fairly quickly.

The good news is that they still remain in a relatively good position should they rebound. The Penguins do hold a one-point lead in the standings, but the Caps remain very much in the driver's seat of the division with three games in hand.

Four games separate Washington from the Feb. 26 trade deadline. The Caps will play in Buffalo, host Tampa Bay, play in Florida and host Buffalo. Winning three of those four games, especially if they can beat the dominant Lightning, will go a long way towards putting last week in the rearview mirror. Another tough week, however, could force the hand of general manager Brian MacLellan to make an unanticipated move at the trade deadline in order to keep a playoff season from falling apart.

After a week like that, it's no surprise to see Washington fall in this week's NHL Power Rankings. You can see the full rankings here.

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Game 59: Capitals at Sabres Date, Time, How to Watch, Game Thread

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Game 59: Capitals at Sabres Date, Time, How to Watch, Game Thread

What: Washington Capitals vs. Buffalo Sabres

Where: KeyBank Center, Buffalo, N.Y.

When: 3:00 p.m. ET

How to Watch: Capitals-Sabres will be broadcast on NBC Sports Washington (Channel Finder)

Live Stream: You can watch the Capitals-Sabres game on NBC Sports Washington's live stream page.

You can also stream the game online with no cable TV subscription on fuboTV (try for free!).

WHEN IS THE CAPITALS-SABRES GAME?

The Capitals (33-18-7) take on the Sabres (17-31-11) Monday, February 19 at 3:00 p.m. ET in Buffalo.

WHAT CHANNEL IS THE CAPITALS-SABRES GAME ON?

The Capitals-Sabres game will be broadcast on NBC Sports Washington. Coverage kicks off with Capitals FaceOff at 2:00 p.m. followed by Caps GameTime at 2:30 p.m. Stay with NBC Sports Washington for Caps Extra following the game, Caps Overtime at 6:00 p.m. and Caps in 30 at 7:00 p.m. for all your postgame coverage. (NBC Sports Washington channel Finder)

2:00 p.m. — Caps FaceOff
2:30 p.m. — Caps GameTime
3:00 p.m. — Capitals at Sabres
5:30 p.m. — Caps Extra
6:00 p.m. — Caps Overtime
7:00 p.m. — Caps in 30

WHAT ARE THE PROJECTED LINES FOR THE CAPITALS-SABRES GAME?

Here are the projected lines for the Caps-Sabres game:

Forwards
Alex Ovechkin - Nicklas Backstrom - Tom Wilson
Jakub Vrana - Evgeny Kuznetsov - T.J. Oshie
Brett Connolly - Lars Eller - Andre Burakovsky
Chandler Stephenson - Jay Beagle - Devante Smith-Pelly

Defensemen
Christian Djoos - John Carlson
Dmitry Orlov - Matt Niskanen
Brooks Orpik - Madison Bowey

Philipp Grubauer starts with Braden Holtby as backup

Scratches: Alex Chiasson, Taylor Chorney

WHERE CAN I STREAM THE CAPITALS-SABRES GAME?

The Capitals-Sabres game, as well as Caps GameTime and Caps Extra, is available to stream live here through NBC Sports Washington's live stream page and is available to authenticated NBC Sports Washington subscribers on desktops, tablets, mobile devices and connected TVs anywhere in the United States.

The game is also available to stream, along with all the pregame and postgame shows, on fuboTV (try for free).

CAPITALS-SABRES OPEN THREAD

Use the comment section below to discuss the game action with other Capitals fans. 

For all the latest Caps coverage, follow Capitals Insider Tarik El-Bashir, Capitals correspondent JJ Regan and the NBC Sports Capitals account on Twitter. Be sure check out our Capitals page and NBC Sports Washington's Facebook page.