It seemed cruel when Nicklas Backstrom made his long-awaited season debut two weeks ago that Evgeny Kuznetsov was placed in COVID protocols just hours before puck drop.
It felt crueler after his first game all season, Backstrom was placed in protocol just before a game against the Winnipeg Jets two days later.
But after a longer-than-planned Christmas break - and a longer-than-planned delay due to COVID protocol - the Capitals were able to dress a lineup that included all of the team’s top four centers in the same game for the first time all year.
It may have taken 32 games, but the pain of waiting drifted off as the Capitals won 5-3 over the Predators at Capital One Arena in their first game in 10 days, led by some standout performances from their centers.
"Individually the guys who come back, not just on the ice but in the locker room, I thought was a huge boost for us,” Garnet Hathaway said. “Their energy, their skill on the ice is just a bonus really. You can say top-four, but they're some of the best top-four in the league I think. It's been a long road for a couple of those guys with injuries and with COVID.”
Backstrom netted an assist and third and fourth line centers Lars Eller and Nic Dowd scored goals. But the hero of the night was Kuznetsov, who scored the game-winning goal 14:24 into the third period on a beautiful shot from almost no angle.
In total, the Capitals’ centers combined for three goals and an assist, though it could’ve been more were it not for some big time saves by Predators goalie Juuse Saros, especially with his team on the penalty kill.
But perhaps more importantly, it allowed the Capitals to better balance their lines in a way they hadn’t done all season long. And, obviously, it allowed them to get one of the league’s best playmakers back into the top six.
"That’s huge for us,” Kuznetsov said of Backstrom’s return. “Just his presence gave us a lot. It’s opened a lot of plays for us. It’s opened up everything. I hope he’s going to stay healthy and we’re going to get better as a group every game."
While the powerplay will draw ire for its 0-for-6 night, there were positives as the team put up 13 shots on goal with the man-advantage. Backstrom’s return and steady hand certainly played a large part.
"Everything, probably,” Kuznetsov said on what Backstrom brings to the powerplay. “He also gives me room to get open. I feel like the puck didn’t go in, but we got some great opportunities. I think big man (Alex Ovechkin) shot like 15 times, right? If we’re going to keep delivering those pucks to him, they will go in for sure. As long as we are going to work for each other and stick with the plan, everything will go well."
For a team that’s struggled on the powerplay so far this season — they are now 14-of-96, which comes out to 14.6% and 30th in the league — they now at least have their full complement of powerplay options with Backstrom back in the fold to see if that fixes the issue.
“When we go back and look at the chances tonight there’s going to be 15 scoring chances on the powerplay,” coach Peter Laviolette said. “These will drop in and at some point, they’ll go. To generate 15 for a group that’s been kind of tattered by whatever we’ve been dealing with, it would’ve been great to get a goal or two goals on the powerplay, it didn’t happen.”
The important part for the Capitals on Wednesday, on both the man advantage and at even strength, was the process. With a maximum of 128 total games played amongst their top four centers, they’ve played just 76 games in total so far this season. Naturally, it was a relief to continue to slowly creep to full health.
There have been admirable fill-ins, like from Aliaksei Protas and Connor McMichael and Hendrix Lapierre, yet this was the center depth the Capitals had drawn up at season’s open.
With Backstrom and Kuznetsov back in the fold, and Eller and Dowd in their regular roles as third and fourth line centers, the Capitals are finally able to get a look at what they’d hoped their depth down the middle would look like all season. And the win against the Predators gave some strong returns.