Evgeny Kuznetsov stars in Capitals’ upset of Panthers

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SUNRISE, Fla. — Ahead of the Washington Capitals’ Stanley Cup playoffs opener, as he answered questions about their matchup with the Presidents’ Trophy-winning Florida Panthers, Evgeny Kuznetsov was asked about his approach to the postseason.

Surely the flashy center would say something along the lines of how the playoffs are the time for him — and the rest of his teammates — to prove they’re still contenders, right? Instead, he took a different yet relatable approach.

“I just want to get out of here because I have allergies,” Kuznetsov said. “I’m excited to start on the road so I can start breathing.”

It was typical Kuznetsov, but don’t let the 29-year-old’s quip fool you. When Kuznetsov is joking and happy, that’s typically when he’s in peak form — and he delivered during Washington’s 4-2 Game 1 win over the Panthers on Tuesday night.

Kuznetsov got the equalizer on a breakaway in the third period, typing the score at 2 with 8:14 gone and then busting out his trademark bird celebration. TJ Oshie followed it up a little over two minutes later with the game-winner.

The Capitals will need Kuznetsov to stay sharp as the Panthers scramble to overcome losing home-ice advantage. And he will be even more important if Tom Wilson, who left Game 1 in the first period with a lower-body injury, remains sidelined.

Coach Peter Laviolette said Wednesday that the physical winger was getting treatment on the day off and will be a game-time decision Thursday night for Game 2.

“Obviously, it’s hard to find someone that plays the same way as Tom,” winger Anthony Mantha said. “He’s a great player for our team, and he’s intense. I have hits a lot. So I think it’s just the same mindset for us and play the same game. Special teams need to be dominant, and hopefully we will go from there.”

Wilson, who had a breakthrough season offensively, had Washington’s first goal Tuesday but left the game after his next shift. If he’s unable to play Thursday, a rookie — Connor McMichael or Axel Jonsson-Fjallby — probably will make his Stanley Cup playoff debut. Laviolette also said Wednesday that John Carlson, who took a high hit from Sam Bennett in the final moments of Game 1, is good to go for Game 2.

“He is just a guy you cannot replace,” Oshie said of Wilson. “Not only that, but his presence in the room is very influential to our team. We are hoping for the best.”

The Capitals can say the same about Kuznetsov. For him to get on the board in Game 1 was an encouraging step following a strong regular season. He’s a distributor first, but there’s no questioning his scoring abilities from him. The more pressing issue is something along these lines: Will he put in the effort to be a force on the ice, and can he keep that up for a prolonged stretch?

Kuznetsov finished the regular season with 24 goals and 54 assists for 78 points in 79 games. This series is his next test of him.

“Kuzy has a skating ability that not a lot of guys in the league have, so when he is going and he is putting the effort forth, when he is on the ice, he can kind of take over,” Oshie said late last month . “… To see him grow as a person and as a teammate and as a friend, it’s been great to see.”

Since Kuznetsov had a stellar 32-point performance in Washington’s run to the Stanley Cup in 2018, he hasn’t fared well in the postseason. Last year, he had no points in three games; a stint in the NHL’s coronavirus protocols forced him to miss the first two matchups of the Capitals’ five-game loss to the Boston Bruins.

From February: Evgeny Kuznetsov is the Caps’ all-smiles all-star. He wants you to smile, too.

He vowed to work harder in the offseason, to prove to critics who questioned his commitment and discipline that he could do better. This season, he did just that: He was an anchor for a team that played without fellow center Nicklas Backstrom until December.

Flashes of that player who dominated the 2018 playoffs were there even during his down years. Now, with the Capitals sitting on an unexpected series lead, Kuznetsov has a chance to break out.

And in even better news, his allergies have improved now that the team is in Florida.

“It was unbelievable yesterday, actually — I was able to go outside and walk,” Kuznetsov said Tuesday night. “…That’s a big thing.”

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