WASHINGTON — Evgeny Kuznetsov stayed on the ice until the very end of Saturday’s warmup, shooting at an empty net to test the injury that had become one of the main talking points of the Stanley Cup final.
When the puck dropped for Game 3, the Capitals centre showed he was feeling just fine.
Kuznetsov scored what turned out to be the winner and added an assist as Washington defeated the Vegas Golden Knights 3-1 to take a 2-1 lead in the best-of-seven series.
The leading scorer in the playoffs with 27 points, Kuznetsov was rocked by Vegas defenceman Brayden McNabb in the first period of Washington’s 3-2 road victory on Wednesday.
He left clutching his left arm or wrist and didn’t return, but practised on Friday and took part in the Capitals’ morning skate before giving the injury a final once over about a half hour before puck drop.
“It’s emotional stuff,” Kuznetsov said of pain. “When you’re hurt, you play a little better.
“You have extra energy.”
Alex Ovechkin, with the 60th playoff goal of his career, and Devante Smith-Pelly also scored for Washington, which won its first-ever game on home ice in the final to move two victories from its first Cup.
“It’s only two,” Ovechkin said. “We just have to move forward and (not) think about it too much.”
Braden Holtby made 21 stops for the Capitals, while Jay Beagle added two assists.
Stefan Nosek replied for the expansion Knights, who got 23 saves from Marc-Andre Fleury in losing back-to-back contests for the first time in the playoffs.
Game 4 goes Monday at Capital One Arena.
“They came out strong,” said Fleury, whose team also finds itself down 2-1 in a series for the first time. “They never slowed down tonight and we did not find a way back.”
Having last played at home in the final on June 16, 1998, when the Detroit Red Wings won 4-1 to complete a four-game sweep in Washington’s only other Cup appearance, the Capitals took the lead 1:10 into the second period off a wild scramble in front.
Fleury made three great saves before Ovechkin leapt over the fallen McNabb and backhanded his 14th goal of the playoffs to tie John Druce’s franchise record for a single post-season set in 1990.
“It was just mayhem,” Capitals defenceman John Carlson said. “We’re hacking and whacking.”
Ovechkin became the 34th player in NHL history to reach 60 playoff goals, accomplishing the feat in 119 games. Patrick Marleau (72 goals in 184 games), Sidney Crosby (66 goals in 160 games) and Evgeni Malkin (62 goals in 158 games) are the only other active players to reach the mark.
“We was possessed out there,” Carlson said of his captain. “He’s playing with passion and energy and joy. He’s a one-man wrecking crew. How committed he is, it’s the best he’s played.”
Washington, which was just 4-5 at home in the playoffs coming into Saturday, then went up 2-0 at 12:50 when Kuznetsov moved in 2-on-1 with Beagle after a bad pinch by Vegas defenceman Shea Theordore and chimed a shot in off the far post past Fleury for his 12th before breaking out his flying bird celebration.
“A huge boost,” Beagle said of getting Kuznetsov back. “We know the kind of player he is and what to expect.
“He played unreal.”
In between the goals, both teams had a number of great chances.
Vegas, which entered with a 13-4 record in the playoffs and a 6-2 road mark, had three opportunities to it tie right after Ovechkin’s opener, including a great stop by Holtby on Jonathan Marchessault.
Washington’s T.J. Oshie then failed to connect on a wide-open net while getting bothered by Luca Sbisa before hitting the post on a deflection on a power play.
Fleury flashed the glove to make a hockey-card calibre stop on Ovechkin, but could do nothing on Kuznetsov’s shot off the post.
Holtby, who robbed Knights forward Alex Tuch on an incredible stick save with under two minutes to go in Game 2, gifted the Knights a lifeline 3:29 into the third when he inexplicably played a puck from behind his own net up the middle.
Pierre-Edouard Bellemare got a stick on it before it fell to Nosek, who scored his fourth into the empty net.
“I want him to keep doing the things that he’s doing, because there’s been times where against a high-pressure team like this, when you’re trying to break the puck out as a defenceman, it’s a lot easier with him distributing the puck,” Carlson said. “He bypasses guys and makes really good first passes.
“It’s one bad play, a lucky play that went it. But nobody even bats an eye because of what he means to us and what he’s done.”
The Capitals picked up their goalie and put the game out of reach at 13:53 when Theodore turned the puck over to Beagle in his own zone, who fed Smith-Pelly in front for his fifth.
“Personally, not a good game,” Theodore said. “I’ve got to be better.”
After the Knights had famed ring announcer Michael Buffer read out the starting lineups to open the series, Capitals season-ticket holder and “Wheel of Fortune” host Pat Sajak did the same in Game 3.
Fleury stretched to make a great glove stop on Ovechkin after a beautiful saucer pass from Kuznetsov on an early 2-on-1 as Washington came out flying on home ice.
The Capitals appeared to go ahead about five minutes in, but Chandler Stephenson’s goal was immediately waved off after Smith-Pelly went too far in his attempt screen of Fleury, jumping into the netminder and sending him tumbling to the ice.
Smith-Pelly was whistled for goaltender interference, and Vegas finally got going on the power play before Reilly Smith hit the post shortside on Holtby after the teams were back to 5 on 5.
Smith then took a penalty that Vegas killed off, with Marchessault hitting the same post for the Knights moments later before Kuznetsov took over in the second.
“It’s (a) huge game,” he said. “We got the lead, but you have to have short memory.
“You have to get rest and focus.”
Notes: Sting and Shaggy, who recently collaborated on a new album, performed a pre-game concert outside the Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery. … Game 5 is set for Vegas on Thursday. Game 6, if necessary, would be played back in Washington on Sunday, June 10.
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Joshua Clipperton, The Canadian Press