The Suddenly Full-Strength Capitals Return to Action Sunday

The suddenly full-strength Caps are set to return to action originally appeared on NBC Sports Washington

When the Capitals return to action on Sunday against the Pittsburgh Penguins (3 p.m., NBC), it will be with a full-strength lineup.

"It seems like forever, seems like a long time since we've had everybody out there together skating in their lines and pairs and everything," Brenden Dillon said.

Washington has dealt with a number of injuries and players on the NHL's COVID-19 protocol-related absence list throughout the young season. But finally, after a week between games, the Caps appear to be ready to return to full strength.

"I believe we will be," head coach Peter Laviolette said after practice Saturday. "It's been a while since we've been able to say that, so it's nice to say, yeah, we'll have options to play who we want and address the lines the way we want."

With the team's last three games postponed, the Caps have not played since Sunday. That extra week allowed the team to get healthy and ready to play.

"This little break here with the postponement of games gave us a chance to get some guys back and get back into game conditioning and work on some things, so we're excited to finally get to play tomorrow," Justin Schultz said.

Schultz is among the players who were out who looks like he will be returning on Sunday. He has not played since Jan. 28, when he took a puck to the face. On Saturday, he was skating on the second defensive pair with Zdeno Chara.

Schultz had six points in three games prior to coming out of the lineup and is hopeful he will be able to pick up where he left off.

Evgeny Kuznetsov is also expected to play in his first game since Jan. 19. Though no one was happy to see the team's games postponed over the week, Kuznetsov was grateful for the additional time it gave him to practice before coming back into the lineup.

"It helps a lot for sure," Kuznetsov said. "I think those days, we practice hard. For me, it was very hard so when I come back home, I'm basically on my couch for rest of the day. It's not easy, but there is no complaints. I've been excited to having those days and at least practice and spend the time on the ice."

Kuznetsov, who dealt with symptoms of the coronavirus while out, said he went 21 days without exercise while on the COVID list, making this extra week of practice invaluable in preparing for his return.

"I have to be smart and I have to do my job on the ice first, then don't try to do too much," he said. "There's not a lot of juice inside me yet, but mentally I'm one-hundred percent there."

While the team is technically back to full strength, the status of goalie Ilya Samsonov remains unclear.

"It's difficult coming out, and he was tied up a bit longer. It's difficult to come out and jump back on the ice and feel great," Laviolette said. "You're working through that. I thought each day he's looked better, just from a conditioning standpoint and a goaltending standpoint."

Laviolette would not commit to Samsonov playing in or even traveling to Pittsburgh, saying those decisions would be made later Saturday. He also did not dismiss whether Samsonov could be sent to Hershey for a conditioning stint.

But even if Samsonov does not play, Laviolette says there will be no excuses for the team going forward. With several key players back, he said he expects the team to improve its game as a whole.

"We've got to get our train moving back in the right direction," Laviolette said. "That's on us now. We've got everybody available; We've got to get it done."

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