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Trending Topics: Capitals won, but now face the Kuznetsov question

Things picked up where they left off in Game 1.

The first period was testy, to say the least, with a number of big and borderline hits that went uncalled (it is, after all, the playoffs). Most were not especially worth getting worked up about — let ’em play that way if everyone’s onboard — but the hit on Evgeny Kuznetsov by Brayden McNabb was troubling.

It was clean in the sense that Kuznetsov had the puck (more or less) and that McNabb’s forearm or elbow only came up on impact. The potential for a head injury wasn’t the problem, of course, but the fact that Kuznetsov skated to the bench in considerable pain and didn’t return for the remainder of the game is a B-I-G concern.

The Caps played some of these playoffs without Tom Wilson, due to suspension. That’s the kind of guy you miss but you don’t miss too badly. The next guy up down the depth chart can pretty easily replicate a lot of the value he brings to the team’s top line. The Caps also played a good chunk of the postseason without Nick Backstrom, due to injury. That’s a guy who’s much harder to replace, as one of the higher-end centers in the sport.

Kuznetsov, however, might be borderline-impossible to replace.

Obviously Barry Trotz has the luxury of being able to simply bump Backstrom up to the top line, and Lars Eller to the second. Eller performed well enough in that role while Backstrom was out (he also powered two goals in Game 2), so there’s little reason to suspect that he would suddenly struggle alongside T.J. Oshie now. However, there was a huge difference in Washington’s numbers when Ovechkin played with Backstrom this season versus when he played with Kuznetsov.

Washington Capitals center Evgeny Kuznetsov, right, of Russia, winces as he is checked by Vegas Golden Knights defenseman Brayden McNabb. (AP Photo/Ross D. Franklin)

Specifically, the Capitals scored significantly fewer goals with an Ovechkin-Backstrom combo in the regular season (exactly one fewer per 60 at 5-on-5). But at the same time, they also allowed nearly a goal fewer. So the rate at which Ovechkin’s line outscored its opponents was about a goal per hour, regardless of center. And we’re not talking about small samples here; Ovechkin played more than 50 additional minutes at full strength with Backstrom.

However, one wonders the extent to which the Capitals would like that tradeoff, if they had the choice. Because at least with no Backstrom, you have proof of concept in this postseason, in theory. In the four games Backstrom missed, Ovechkin and Kuznetsov were on the ice together for eight Washington goals and just two from their opponents in all situations. With Eller centering the second line, that group went 6-2.

This isn’t to say Backstrom is somehow going to neuter Ovechkin’s scoring ability, because they have a long and storied history of producing plenty of goals together. But again, this year’s numbers say you get more goals in the new way than the older, more familiar partnership. Past performance isn’t always an indicator of future results, right? But you want to play the odds and score as many goals as you can. Contrary to popular belief, a goal prevented isn’t worth more than a goal scored.

Put another way, do you want the Ovechkin line going punch for punch with Smith-Karlsson-Marchessault, or do you want to try your luck keeping those guys off the scoresheet, as you did in Game 2? I know which one I’d pick.

Then again, this isn’t a decision so much as an unenviable emergency forced on Ovechkin and Co.

But how long can you go on like this? You can maybe weather a game or two without Kuznetsov, you’d think. And maybe a game or two is all you need to turn this series into a relatively sure thing. Or maybe he doesn’t miss any time and was held out as a precaution. Just no way of knowing. But what we do know is this: If Kuznetsov’s arm got cut off with an axe at center ice during the pre-game Medieval Times skit, the Caps would list him as questionable for Game 3 with an upper-body injury.

Also worth noting, obviously, that Washington scored on the power play in the second period even sans Kuznetsov, whose presence on the man advantage results in a lot more goalscoring as a general rule. Their 5-on-4 play is one of two things were always going to be the thing that differentiated them from the Golden Knights in this series, so for that to happen, well, that’s why you pay Ovechkin the big bucks right?

The other was depth. Vegas’s fourth line, which continues to insist on using Ryan Reaves for Hockey Reasons, has a slightly easier time dealing with a fourth line that is not anchored by Jay Beagle (who’s a little better than replacement level) versus one that is. One also wonders how the loss of Eller on the third line affects, say, Andre Burakovsky. Burakovsky is up to 2-3-5 in his last three games, including two assists last night. One imagines he might see his (outsized) production slow down if he’s trying to manufacture offense through Beagle.

When you score three goals and have Braden Holtby in net, you’d usually bet on that being enough to win it. It wasn’t in Game 1. It was (barely) in Game 2, largely because the Capitals were quite insistent on giving Vegas late power plays. Washington didn’t need Kuznetsov to manufacture their goals last night, but that’s a gaping hole in the lineup and you can’t count on Gerard Gallant to put Reaves on the ice as an extra attacker going forward. Tough to see where this ends up being something less than a “big problem” for the Capitals, even as they head home tied in the Cup Final.

Then again, Vegas might not be able to contain the offensive force that is Brooks Orpik for the rest of this series, so there’s probably nothing to worry about.

Ryan Lambert is a Puck Daddy columnist. His email is here and his Twitter is here.

All stats via Corsica unless otherwise noted.

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