ARLINGTON, Va. -- As the Capitals pondered what went wrong Saturday after being handed their first loss, it seemed clear the answer may have been just as much about who did not play on Saturday as the players who did.
“We just didn't execute what we wanted to do,” T.J. Oshie said of the power play after the team’s 3-2 overtime loss to the Carolina Hurricanes. “When you don't do that and you're not winning too many battles down low, the other team's PK's going to send a lot of pucks down the ice and that's a lot of skating for a power play unit. They got the better of us tonight, but we'll learn from it.”
The biggest issue for the team’s power play on Saturday was the break-ins into the offensive zone which should come as no surprise with Evgeny Kuznetov out.
Suspended for the first three games of the season, Kuznetsov is now slated to return to the lineup on Tuesday as the Capitals host the Dallas Stars.
Lars Eller stepped into Kuznetsov's spot at second-line center and performed well with three assists. The Caps are fortunate to have a player of his caliber who can slide into Kuznetsov’s role in his absence, but ultimately a team cannot lose a player as good as Kuznetsov and not feel his absence.
After winning the first two games, the suspension finally caught up with Washington on Saturday in the form of the power play.
In a game that could not be decided in 60 minutes, the Caps going 0-for-6 on the power play was a key factor in the loss. Kuznetsov is the primary puck-handler on the break-ins and without him, the power play on Saturday seemed out of sync. There were multiple offsides and icings as the getting past the blue line was a major struggle.
“You can't go 0-for-6 and then expect to have the outcome you want so it comes down to looking at why it was happening,” Todd Reirden said. “I thought their penalty kill worked extremely hard and were able to come up with more puck battles than we were and our entries weren't clean.”
“Obviously Kuz-mon's coming back here,” Oshie said. “I imagine he steps into that spot down there and hopefully we can get some chemistry going.”
The Caps may have earned five out of six points in the first three games, but it was clear on Saturday they were still missing Kuznetsov. As he spoke on Monday, it was clear he had missed the team just as much as they missed him.
“It's not easy to watch the games from upstairs or on the TV,” Kuznetsov said. “As the hockey player, when you play a lot of games you probably not realize how cool it is to actually go through warmup, go through all the process and play the hockey game. When you miss couple games, you start realize how much easier, much better, much cooler to play the hockey then be at the workout area.”
“It's just the three games, but for me it was like a couple months,” he added.
It likely felt the same way for Reirden.
The Caps have a brutal October schedule and losing one of the team’s top two centers for the first three games could have potentially put the team in a major hole. Washington, however, rallied to go 2-0-1 to start the season and will look to gain some momentum with Kuznetsov back.
It does not appear Kuznetsov will immediately step into a top-six role upon his return to the lineup against Dallas. He skated on the third line centering Carl Hagelin and Richard Panik during practice on Monday.
Reirden said after practice there was no significance or message to be sent by having Kuznetsov on the third line. It was just a factor of Eller playing well with Jakub Vrana and T.J. Oshie.
That’s just fine with Kuznetsov who said: “it's just a chance finally to get out of here from my house.”
“My job is just do not make worse,” Kuznetsov said. “Whatever the coach going to tell me to do, I just have to execute and have to play the game and whatever his plan will be for me, I just have to do it.”
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