WASHINGTON -- While Washington Capitals fans waited and wondered, the coach already knew what was going to happen.
Center Evgeny Kuznetsov officially was day to day with an upper-body injury sustained in Game 2 of the Stanley Cup Final against the Vegas Golden Knights and was considered not medically cleared.
Unofficially? Capitals coach Barry Trotz knew Kuznetsov would play.
[RELATED: Ovechkin 'on another level' in Game 3 | Complete Golden Knights vs. Capitals series coverage]
As Trotz said after Game 3 on Saturday, "I felt very confident when I was on the plane coming back [from Las Vegas] that he was going to be playing."
It was crucial that he did.
Kuznetsov scored the game-winning goal in the Capitals' 3-1 win against the Golden Knights at Capital One Arena, getting a secondary assist on Alex Ovechkin's goal and playing an important role in helping Washington take a 2-1 lead in the best-of-7 series. Game 4 is here Monday (8 p.m. ET; NBC, CBC, SN, TVAS).
Video: VGK@WSH, Gm3: Kuznetsov snipes wrister past Fleury
The center, though, would only admit that he knew he was going to play as of Saturday morning.
"I woke up, felt a little better again," he said. "I felt like I can help the team, and it ended up working pretty well for us."
That might be a bit of an understatement.
Or, as Kuznetsov later said of playing through the injury, "It's emotional stuff. Like Michael Jordan, when he played his best game. He got hurt, got 53 points."
It was not immediately clear which game he was referring to. It could have been when Jordan scored 63 points for the Chicago Bulls in Game 2 of the first round of the 1986 NBA playoffs against the Boston Celtics after returning from a broken left foot and being expected to miss the rest of the season. Or the "Flu Game," when Jordan scored 38 points in Game 5 of the 1997 NBA Finals against the Utah Jazz.
"When you're hurt, you play a little better always," Kuznetsov said. "You have extra energy. Sometimes it's even better for you when you watch the hockey from upstairs a little bit and you see a few things a little bit. It's just so emotional."
Kuznetsov left Game 2 at Vegas on Wednesday with 5:18 remaining in the first period after a hit by Golden Knights defenseman Brayden McNabb. It was not entirely clear until he came out for warmups before Game 3 that he was going to play.
And right at the beginning, he was making an impact. Kuznetsov took the puck down the ice on a 2-on-1 with Ovechkin, with McNabb between them and goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury, and slid a pass across the slot to Ovechkin, but Fleury made the save 1:08 into the game.
He didn't later, at 12:50 of the second period, after T.J. Oshie started a play in the defensive zone, knocking the puck over to forward Jay Beagle, who tapped it to Kuznetsov coming down the right side. Just as Kuznetsov sailed through the face-off dot, he flicked the puck at Fleury, scoring his 12th goal of the Stanley Cup Playoffs and the one that, after a Tomas Nosek goal for Vegas at 3:29 of the third period, stood as the winner.
"I think the shot, it's not my strong side," Kuznetsov said. "But that situation, we got a 2-on-1, I looked for [Beagle] and when you have a chance to feed those guys who play on the PK a lot, who block a lot of shots, you want to make that pass for him. But he wasn't open that time and I have to shoot."
Video: VGK@WSH, Gm3: Trotz on Kuznetsov's return, confidence
It worked out. Besides, as Beagle said, "[The assist isn't] as good as a goal, but I want it out of my hands when it's me and him, that's for sure."
Because he knows, and they know, exactly what Kuznetsov can do when he has the puck because they've been watching it throughout the postseason. They've been watching his continued emergence into becoming, as defenseman John Carlson put it, one of the most dynamic players in the NHL.
Dynamic and productive.
With the goal and the assist Saturday, Kuznetsov continues to lead the Stanley Cup Playoffs with 27 points (12 goals, 15 assists), two more than Ovechkin, including two points that helped the Capitals to their first home Cup Final win in their history.
"Obviously a huge boost," Beagle said of Kuznetsov returning. "It's big. He's a key part of our team. He's huge for us. When he goes down you obviously don't want that. We know the kind of player he is and what to expect, and tonight he played unreal."
Kind of Jordan-like, you might say.
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