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Kuznetsov set to play first game with Capitals following suspension

Center, who missed first three of season, expected to be in lineup against Stars

by Tom Gulitti @TomGulittiNHL / Staff Writer

ARLINGTON, Va. -- Evgeny Kuznetsov will have the opportunity to begin making good on his vow to redeem himself when the Washington Capitals center makes his season debut against the Dallas Stars at Capital One Arena on Tuesday (7 p.m. ET; ESPN+, NBCSWA, FS-SW, NHL.TV).

Kuznetsov was suspended for the first three regular-season games for inappropriate conduct following a positive test for cocaine May 26 while playing for Russia at the 2019 IIHF World Championship in Slovakia. Although the Capitals went 2-0-1 without the 27-year-old, he's eager to get back in the lineup and help them.

"It's exciting for sure," Kuznetsov said after practice Monday. "It's been quite a hard summer for me. It's not easy to watch the games from upstairs or on the TV. As a hockey player, when you play a lot of games, you probably not realize how cool it is to actually go through warmup, go through the all the process and play the hockey game.

"When you miss a couple games, you start to realize how much easier and much better, much cooler, (it is) to play the hockey than to be in the workout area."

Kuznetsov, who voluntarily entered the Substance Abuse and Behavioral Health Program run by the NHL and the NHL Players' Association, expressed remorse after his suspension was announced Sept. 14. The suspension followed an inconsistent 2018-19 season when he had 72 points (21 goals, 51 assists) in 76 regular-season games and six points (one goal, five assists) in seven Stanley Cup Playoff games.

That came after he led the playoffs with 32 points (12 goals, 20 assists) in 24 games and helped Washington win the Stanley Cup in 2018.

Kuznetsov knows the only way he can move on from last season and the actions that led to his suspension is to play well this season. But he had to sit out the first three games first.

"It's just the three games, but for me it was a couple months and those hours were slow," Kuznetsov said. "I feel like every game was pretty slow. … But it's all part of the life and I have to go through this moment."

Video: CAR@WSH, Gm7: Kuznetsov rips one past Mrazek

Coach Todd Reirden views Kuznetsov's return as a chance for him to have a fresh start.

"It's the end of a tough time for him and the start of something brand new," Reirden said. "You can look at it and talk about it a lot of different ways from my perspective, but, for me, the most important thing is that he's got a chance to make a statement here. It's, obviously, not going to be perfect coming back after a layoff, but with how he plays and the role model that he is, his best response now is going to be how he shows on the ice.

"Everything else has been talked about and been dealt with and within our locker room, within our organization, now it's time to play hockey and react accordingly and do the thing that he does best. We're looking forward to seeing him back at Stanley Cup level of two seasons ago."

Kuznetsov's teammates also are excited about his return and can sense he's determined to prove himself again in his seventh NHL season.

"Everybody knows what's going on and, of course, he will try to have a better year than he had last year," defenseman Dmitry Orlov said. "You can see during camp he was flying and made some plays in the exhibition games. He's fun to be around, he's a funny guy and he's always been a good teammate, and everybody likes him and have a lot of love for him. So, it's going to be a big night for him tomorrow."

It appears Reirden might ease Kuznetsov back into things against Dallas. Kuznetsov practiced on the third line with Carl Hagelin and Richard Panik on his wings Monday.

Usual third-line center Lars Eller had three assists while subbing for Kuznetsov on the second line with Jakub Vrana and T.J. Oshie, who each had two goals and an assist in the first three games.

"That line, I think, has been really solid for us," Reirden said. "We'd like to keep some of that chemistry together right away, but we'll take a look at it and talk about it as a coaching staff and decide officially tomorrow morning if that's what we're going to do or not."

Wherever Reirden decides to play him, Kuznetsov is simply happy to get back in game action.

"My job is just to not make worse and just whatever the coach is going to tell me to do I have to execute and have to play the game," Kuznetsov said. "Whatever his plan will be for me, I just have to do it."

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