ARLINGTON, Va. -- At 10:24 a.m. Friday, Evgeny Kuznetsov stepped on the ice to cheers from the crowd of more than 1,000 to watch the Washington Capitals' optional practice.
The fans, who filled the bleachers and open area around the glass at one end of the rink to see the first June practice at Kettler Capitals Iceplex since it opened in 2006, cheered for every player, but their reaction to Kuznetsov was a mixture of relief and joy.
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They'd last seen the center skating off the ice, holding his left wrist, with 5:18 left in the first period of a 3-2 win against the Vegas Golden Knights in Game 2 of the Stanley Cup Final on Wednesday. Kuznetsov was injured on a hit from Golden Knights defenseman Brayden McNabb, and, though coach Barry Trotz said Thursday he was day to day with an upper-body injury, it didn't look good.
So Kuznetsov's appearance at practice Friday was a welcome surprise. With the best-of-7 series tied 1-1 and Game 3 at Capital One Arena on Saturday (8 p.m. ET; NBCSN, CBC, SN, TVAS), his teammates were happy to see him too.
"He's one of the top guys," linemate Alex Ovechkin said. "And, of course, it's very important to see him skating, and I'm pretty sure he's going to be OK tomorrow."
After the Capitals' morning skate Saturday, Trotz said Kuznetsov would be a game-time decision; he took part in the skate and took regular line rushes. Judging how he looked in practice Friday -- he had no trouble shooting the puck or making and receiving passes -- there appears to be a good chance he'll play.
Video: NHL Now on the injury status of Evgeny Kuznetsov
Even if he's not 100 percent, Kuznetsov can be difference-maker for Washington. Centering the top line between Ovechkin and Tom Wilson, he has been one of their best players, leading the Stanley Cup Playoffs with 25 points (11 goals, 14 assists), a Capitals postseason record and one more than Ovechkin, who has 13 goals and 11 assists.
Kuznetsov set a Washington record with an 11-game playoff point streak (six goals, 10 assists) that ended Wednesday.
"He's a real good skater, probably the best skater on our team," Ovechkin said. "He controls the puck well, he sees the ice, and he still has the potential to be a better player. That's what makes him so special."
The 26-year-old is third among Capitals forwards averaging 20:36 in ice time per game (behind Nicklas Backstrom and Ovechkin, each averaging 20:57) and a key part of their power play, which has scored at 29 percent in the playoffs (second in the NHL behind the Boston Bruins at 36.4 percent).
Before missing three games with a left shoulder injury from March 18-22, Kuznetsov hadn't missed a game in three seasons.
"When a guy that's playing top-line minutes and spends so much time with the puck, spends a lot of time on the ice, lots of minutes, it's great, it's amazing to see how durable he can be," Wilson said. "The expectations, the pressure every night, those superstars, they're expected to out there and have an effect on every single game and they do. … He's a huge leader and he drives this team just like [Ovechkin] does."
After establishing NHL career-highs with 27 goals and 83 points in the regular season, Kuznetsov has been clutch throughout the playoffs. His overtime goal in Game 6 of the second round against the Pittsburgh Penguins gave Washington a series-clinching 2-1 win that put them in the Eastern Conference Final for the first time since 1998.
Video: WSH@VGK, Gm2: Kuznetsov exits with injury after hit
Kuznetsov led the Capitals with 10 points (four goals, six assists) in seven games against the Tampa Bay Lightning in the conference final.
"He's been at his best when the stakes are the highest," Washington center Lars Eller said. "Game 6 in Pittsburgh was a good example of him coming up at the most crucial time. … He's elevated his game. We always talk about the timely goals in playoffs, and he's scored some timely goals for us."
If Kuznetsov is unable to play Saturday, it would leave a significant hole in Washington's lineup. Eller was one of the main reasons it was able to win without him in Game 2.
With Backstrom moving up to take Kuznetsov's spot on the top line, Eller replaced Backstrom as the second-line center between Jakub Vrana and T.J. Oshie and had a goal and two assists. Eller did the same thing when Backstrom injured his right hand earlier in the playoffs, getting two goals and three assists when Backstrom missed four games.
But Washington's chances of defeating Vegas, which is four lines deep at forward, would be diminished significantly if they had to play without Kuznetsov for more than a game or two.
"We've shown in the past we can overcome those kind of losses in a short period of time, but, of course, we hope to have him back," Eller said. "[Kuznetsov] is one of our most important players. He's an amazing talent and he can make the difference in any game. So we hope to have him back for tomorrow, but we'll see."
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