A depleted Capitals team has lost three straight games in regulation, but help may be on the way with three key players nearing a return. Evgeny Kuznetsov, Ilya Samsonov and Justin Schultz were all on the ice for Monday's practice signaling that all three are nearing a return to the lineup.
Following practice, head coach Peter Laviolette did not rule out anyone for Tuesday's game against the Philadelphia Flyers, labeling all of the team's missing players as day-to-day.
Kuznetsov and Samsonov were taken off of the NHL's COVID-19 protocol-related absence list on Monday and allowed to practice. Both were placed on the list on Jan. 20 with Alex Ovechkin and Dmitry Orlov, but were not ready to return after the minimum week quarantine passed.
Both players said they experienced symptoms of coronavirus while out, but the big challenge now is just to get back into game shape after not being able to get on the ice for nearly three weeks.
"It's tough to lose the hands for a couple weeks," Kuznetsov said. "It's just conditioning probably and to be able to breathe nice on the ice. As soon as you lost wind, it's not easy to get back right away."
"I was on the ice for about an hour and 40 minutes, so it was a good practice," Samsonov said through an interpreter. "Obviously, first time back out there presents some challenges, but overall I felt well."
Adding a center like Kuznetsov back into the lineup would be a huge boon for Washington which is thin at that position outside of its top four centers. With Jakub Vrana and T.J. Oshie out of Sunday's game as well, the team went into the game missing an entire top-six line.
Kuznetsov was noncommittal on whether he will be ready for Tuesday.
"I don't know. We're day to day, you know, and it's all about how I'm gonna feel tomorrow," Kuznetsov said. "I'm just happy I'm alive today, and be able to practice with the team is just a big step for me."
With Samsonov out, Vitek Vanecek has started in nine straight games. Sunday was a tough performance, however, as he was pulled in the second period after allowing four goals on just 13 shots. Laviolette said no decision had yet been made on who will start Tuesday, but that he was not worried about fatigue for Vanecek.
Still, considering Samsonov entered the season expected to be the team's starter, it would not be shocking to see Samsonov get the nod Tuesday if he feels he is ready to go.
"It’s really up to me how I progress," he said after practice. "I’m hoping tomorrow’s practice will be easier, and the day after will be easier as well, so I’m just kind of taking a one-day-at-a-time approach here, but I’m remaining positive.”
Schultz has not played since Jan. 28 after getting struck in the face with a puck. Monday was his first practice since the injury.
"Obviously a bunch of teeth are in pretty rough shape," Schultz said. "Lost a couple and a couple small fractures there, but nothing too serious. It could have been a lot worse which I'm thankful for."
Schultz wore a mask in practice and will play with one if he plays in Tuesday's game.
None of those three players ruled themselves out for Tuesday, but Laviolette said the decision to play will not be based solely on how the players feel.
"I think it's a combination of everything," Laviolette said. "A combination of what the trainers and the doctors are saying, a combination of what the players are saying. If the player is healthy and cleared to play, but yet maybe isn't quite where he wants to be, it depends sometimes on where we're at as a team with regard to need."
"Need" may be the key phrase here as there is certainly a need for all three players to return.
While Kuznetsov, Samsonov and Schultz were back on the ice, Vrana and Oshie were not. Vrana is on the NHL's protocol list while Oshie is out with an upper-body injury. Both are considered day-to-day.