Kucherov leading Lightnings pursuit of Stanley Cup repeat


As if that weren’t impressive enough, it’s even more so when you consider the context, the way the forward has evolved as a player and person, and the impact he has made on the rest of the Tampa Bay Lightning.

“You talk about the transformation of our team in the last couple years,” coach Jon Cooper said Tuesday. “I think a big part of that has been the transformation of Nikita Kucherov.”

Kucherov scored three points (two goals, one assist) in the Lightning’s 5-1 victory against the Montreal Canadiens in Game 1 of the Stanley Cup Final at Amalie Arena on Monday, giving him 30 points (seven goals, 23 points) in 19 playoff games.

Video: MTL@TBL, Gm1: Kucherov snipes wrist shot past Price

No one else in the NHL has more than 23 points in the playoffs entering Game 2 here Wednesday (8 p.m. ET; NBCSN, SN, CBC, TVAS).

This comes after Kucherov led the NHL with 34 points (seven goals, 27 assists) in 25 playoff games last season when the Lightning won the Cup.

Kucherov is the fifth player in NHL history to score 30 points in multiple playoff years, joining Gretzky (six years), Messier (three), Kurri (two) and Lemieux (two).

Only Gretzky has had more assists over two playoff years, though he did it twice. Only Gretzky and Lemieux have had more points over two consecutive playoff years, though Gretzky did it five times.

“To see the company he’s in with the production he’s had the last two playoff runs is pretty remarkable,” defenseman Victor Hedman said.

Kucherov has scored 125 points (43 goals, 82 assists) in 109 playoff games in his NHL career. At 1.15 points per game, he ranks behind only Gretzky (1.84), Lemieux (1.61), Messier (1.25), Mike Bossy (1.24) and Kurri (1.17) among those with at least 100 playoff games.

The difference? The others played in the 1980s and early ’90s.

“What’s even more impressive about it is the era he’s doing it in,” Cooper said. “We talk about it, the high-flying ’80s and the scoring and everything went on, and it’s remarkable in today’s day and age when goal-scoring and getting points is at such a premium, and he’s been able to do that not once but two in a row. …

“It’s one thing to do it once, but if you can do it over multiple playoffs, it says something special about you and your talents and being able to perform at the biggest moments. That’s, I think, what separates the good from the great, is the guys that can do it in the big moments, and he is certainly one of them.”

It’s funny to look back now, but Kucherov scored 18 points (nine goals, nine assists) in 52 games as a rookie in 2013-14. Cooper scratched him twice in his first playoff series, and the Lightning were swept in the Eastern Conference First Round by, coincidentally, the Canadiens. At the time, he was 19, still learning to play a complete game and earning trust.

“I remember having meetings with him when he was a rookie,” Cooper said. “Just his knowledge of the game … Listen, I might be the head coach of the team, but it doesn’t make me the smartest guy in the room, and you learn from players, and I was in awe of some of the … You know, I’d look at a play and see it a certain way, and then ‘Kuch’ might see it a different way, and I remember thinking, like, ‘Wow, he’s … I think he’s right.’ And so, you could see he had that mentality.

“But it’s the maturity part that eventually you have to grow into.”

Kucherov broke out with 65 points (29 goals, 36 assists) in 82 games in 2014-15, plus 22 points (10 goals, 12 assists) in 26 games in the playoffs. The Lightning reached the Cup Final but lost to the Chicago Blackhawks in six games. Kucherov continued to reach new levels afterward, in more ways than one.

In 2018-19, he won the Hart Trophy as the NHL’s most valuable player and the Art Ross Trophy as the scoring champion with 128 points (41 goals, 87 assists) in 82 games. The Lightning won 62 games, tying the 1995-96 Detroit Red Wings for the NHL record. But they were swept in the first round by the Columbus Blue Jackets, and Kucherov was suspended for Game 2 for boarding defenseman Markus Nutivaara. He had two assists in three games.

“I know ‘Kuch’ has got so much pride,” Cooper said. “I know he … Probably in the end, if he could reverse that, he would. But ever since then, talk about somebody that’s learned from experience, it’s been him.”

After missing the 2020-21 regular season to recover from hip surgery, Kucherov jumped into the playoffs and right back into a leadership role.

“You want to step up and be a difference-maker for your team, and I think that’s what really drives him,” defenseman Ryan McDonagh said. “He’s never satisfied with just making one play happen or putting one puck in the net. He knows he’s put in those situations to produce and he can make a lot of guys around him better just from his playmaking ability and his finishing ability. He takes a lot of pride in being that type of player for us, where he can make everybody around him better, obviously help our team win. It’s been great to see him continually want to push himself.”

McDonagh said Kucherov never stops working in practice and talking to players about what he sees. When he speaks, it carries weight.

“On the bench, he is the guy orchestrating a lot of the stuff that goes on in the games, of getting pucks deep and saying all those things that you don’t often hear coming out of skill players’ mouths,” Cooper said. “An enormous reason we are where we are today is the emergence of the maturity of Nikita Kucherov.”

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