WASHINGTON — Evgeny Kuznetsov may not have the greatest sports memory in the world.
But Saturday night he again showed that he is one of the best hockey players on the planet.
Kuznetsov’s status was shrouded in mystery until just before the puck dropped for Game 3 due to a left arm injury suffered Wednesday night in Las Vegas. But the Capitals’ postseason leader in points delivered a goal and an assist along with a plus-2 rating in a pivotal juncture of the Stanley Cup Final.
“It’s emotional stuff,” Kuznetsov said of his performance in a 3-1 win over the Golden Knights. “Like Michael Jordan, when he played his best game.
“He got hurt and got 53 points.”
Kuznetsov was most likely referring to the famous “Flu Game” in which Jordan put up 38 points against the Utah Jazz in Game 5 of the 1997 NBA Finals despite battling illness.
The 26-year-old Russian can probably be excused for his inaccurate recollection; he had just turned 5 years old when Jordan delivered that memorable performance.
He also wanted to make it clear he wasn’t comparing himself to one of the best basketball players in history.
“I just mean like when you’re hurt, you play a little better always,” he laughed. “You have extra energy.”
At least one teammate was willing to shoot for the sky with his praise of Kuznetsov.
“He’s been great all season and for the last couple seasons, really,” defenseman John Carlson said. “One of the most dynamic players, and he can take over the league if he wants to. I think he’s that talented and sees the game better than anyone else.
“It was huge to have him. He’s a star player for us. He’s fun to watch, fun to be around, and I think he’s a big part of our team and a big hole we would have had to fill. But it’s no surprise. He’s a great player.”
His play Saturday night backed up the lofty praise.
After helping create some excellent chances in the first period, Kuznetsov assisted on Alex Ovechkin’s goal to open the scoring early in the second period. He followed that up by tucking a shot between the arm and body of Golden Knights goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury.
Not bad for a guy who wasn’t officially declared available until just before the game began. Kuznetsov left Game 2 with what appeared to be a left arm injury suffered on a big hit from Brayden McNabb and was declared a game-time decision by Washington coach Barry Trotz.
“I woke up this morning and felt a little better again,” Kuznetzov said. “I felt like I could help the team, and it ended up working pretty well for us.”
There may have been at least a bit of gamesmanship at play, as there often is at this time of year.
“I felt very confident on the plane coming back (from Las Vegas),” Trotz said of Kuznetsov. “I thought he was outstanding tonight.”
His efforts helped the Capitals take control of the series.
“I tried to stay positive and not even think about if I could play or not,” he said. “Of course I want to play, but you have to understand, can you help the team or not? That’s the toughest part.
“I believe (I did).”