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Kuznetsov, Caps see tough road ahead as ‘fun’ challenge

Washington faces a difficult slate to close out the 2020-21 regular season... and welcomes it.

Washington Capitals v New York Islanders Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images

While adversity and a tough schedule may not be exactly an ideal way to close out a wild, COVID-shortened campaign, Evgeny Kuznetsov and Washington are ready — eager, even — for the challenge.

A calm and collected Kuznetsov remained positive when talking about the Caps’ approach to the rest of the regular season, saying the team is aware of and looking forward to the heavy competition.

“I’ll be honest with you... these are the games you’ve been waiting for,” Kuznetsov said. “You want to play those type of opponents, you know? And it’s always nice to play a team that you know don’t give you a lot and you have to generate some offensive plays and it’s always fun to have that type of challenge.”

Right now, Washington finds itself in the throes of one of its toughest challenges of the year. It began with a mini series against the New York Islanders that’s become more and more like a Stanley Cup Playoff showdown, and the team has yet to falter.

Ilya Samsonov and the Caps stole the first game with a 1-0 shootout win, and then managed to break out offensively and secure a dominant 6-3 victory in game two of three.

“[The Islanders are] a team of course that’s good at home. This is a team that we could face in the playoffs,” Daniel Sprong said. “It’s big for us to get two wins on the road in a hard building to play and now we got another game against them at home.”

Following the third game with New York, Washington faces a rough-and-tumble final slate that features the likes of the Boston Bruins and Pittsburgh Penguins.

Not only that, but the team is without two vital pieces. One is Justin Schultz, their top-4 defenseman and primary assist leader that's proven to be a tremendous contributor at both ends of the ice. The other: captain and leading goal scorer Alex Ovechkin, who’s day-to-day with a lower-body injury.

Heading into the postseason, head coach Peter Laviolette said he’s ready to “err on the side of caution,” which could see the Capitals remaining shorthanded as key players take time to heal fully and gear up for a deep run.

That has yet to faze Washington.

“[That success is] a good sign of the handle of the leadership in the room. I think that’s part of it. I think part of it is the depth. We’re able to a) move lines around or b) just insert someone and not take steps backwards,” Laviolette explained. “We’ve done this in the past. You go back to the beginning of the season and having the guys on the COVID protocol and then there were some injuries slapped in there as well with those guys on the protocol.

“We had a lot of things we were juggling to not stay above water, but keep things moving in the right direction and I thought we did a good job with that. There’s been a little bit of history [with that] and it’s good to see us picking each other up.”

Washington Capitals v New York Islanders Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images

Kuznetsov agreed, explaining that injuries and key absences could also be used as a type of motivation.

“You know, if we’re missing a player like Alex, we have to step up,” Kuznetsov said. “It’s tough playing without him and I think that’s why we elevate our game... we want to be happy and we going to make sure that we execute.”

And execute they did. Kuznetsov notched his second three-point performance in the last four games and has seven points over that span as he continues to heat up at just the right time for the Capitals.

“Kuzy is an unbelievable player to play with... it’s pretty special to play with a guy like that,” Sprong added.

Not only has No. 92 broken out, but players up and down the lineup — and players still vying for a spot in the lineup — have risen to the occasion.

Sprong slotted in for Ovechkin as the top line LW and lived up Ovi’s role, putting up a two-goal performance just one game after being a healthy scratch.

On the other side of the puck, Washington’s d-corps have offered tremendous support in filling the void left by Schultz.

While John Carlson and Dmitry Orlov continue to generate offensively and Zdeno Chara remains the team’s iron man and leader on and off the ice, Trevor van Riemsdyk is perhaps making the biggest statement of late.

The younger brother of Philadelphia Flyers forward James van Riemsdyk been solid in his long-awaited return, putting up an assist, four blocks and plus/minus rating of plus-3 while averaging roughly 16 minutes a night in his last three games.

“When you’re out for a little bit and you haven’t played — and he was out for quite a bit — everything about him as the way things should be done,” Laviolette said of the blueliner. “He worked hard every day, he never complained, he was a great teammate. He’s an extremely capable player, we just didn't get him in there. he came back into the lineup and was a major contributor.”

Samsonov’s also taking matters into his own hands and making a case for control of the Caps’ crease. He put on a show with a 26-save shutout to open the series against the Isles, then posted 21 saves on 24 shots to extend his winning streak to four games.

His performance may be enough to get him the nod again Tuesday, which would mark the first time the Russian netminder made three straight starts in goal.

Right now, the Caps have sole possession of the East Division lead with 65 points, just one point better than Pittsburgh and two better than the Islanders. It’ll be a fight to finish, and one the team welcomes.

“We talked about how we’re going to have to play in the playoffs,” Laviolette said, adding, “We definitely have, I think, tough games coming down the stretch, and I mentioned a few games ago those are games you want to play going into the playoffs. You want to play that style of hockey, You want to have it mean something.”