TAMPA — It is a series a mother can love, especially Mother Russia.
It is the Eastern Conference final between the Lightning and the Capitals that begins tonight. It is Alex Ovechkin and Nikita Kucherov. It is one of the greatest Russian-born NHL stars and an up-and-comer from Ovechkin's homeland.
There are other Russian natives in this series: Goalie Andrei Vasilevskiy and defenseman Mikhail Sergachev for the Lightning, and center Evgeny Kuznetsov and defenseman Dmitry Orlov for the Caps.
But back home, all eyes will be on Ovi, who hails from Moscow, and Kuch, who comes from Maykop, located 870 miles to the south. It is a smaller city. Wikipedia lists only one notable native: Kucherov.
"I think more people are watching the NHL (in Russia) over the last five years, so obviously it's going to be exciting for the fans," Sergachev said.
Sergachev grew up watching Ovechkin, 32, play for the Caps.
"I always liked him," he said.
Kucherov admires his countryman.
"When he came in the league, he was the best player, and I mean he's still the best player," Kucherov, 24, said. "Everybody would talk about him, and I definitely wanted to be in his spot one day, scoring goals. He's a great example for young kids."
Kucherov scored goals this year, 39 of them on the way to his first 100-point season.
Ovechkin, who has four 100-point seasons, had a renaissance of sorts this year, with an 87-point season that included 49 goals. He has eight more and seven assists during the playoffs.
The two are similar in that they are game-changing goal scorers. Yet they differ in how they come about those goals. The smaller Kucherov, 5-11, 178 pounds, uses his speed to create his chances, while the bigger Ovechkin, 6-3, 235, uses his muscle.
I took this photo during a trip to the Hockey Hall of Fame last summer. Little did I know how perfectly it would fit a Martin Fennelly column on Phil Esposito nearly a year later. @PhilEsposito7 #GoBolts @hockeyhallfame https://t.co/ZIpXnOuPZq— Frank Pastor (@FrankPastor66) May 10, 2018
"(Kucherov) is very skilled, a little sneaky, very fast. Pretty smart," Vasilevskiy said.
"Probably the speed of (his shot)," Vasilevskiy said. "He's one of the best players in the world, so it's tough to stop him."
Lightning coach Jon Cooper said Ovechkin has the shoot-first mentality.
"Ovi, he shoots it and he shoots it from everywhere," Cooper said. "He shoots from all different angles, kind of gets labeled as that one-timer spot, but that's just the power play. Look at some of his goals he scored. It just seems like he's getting better with age."
Capitals' coach Barry Trotz has seen plenty of Ovechkin's moves and goals. He said he can still be wowed by Ovi, whether it is a shot on net or a pass to a teammate that leads to one. He said he often finds himself checking out the monitor on the bench to see if what he thought he saw Ovechkin do was real.
"(He) can catch you a little by surprise once in a while," Trotz said. "The top guys are able to perform at an elite level, and it's beautiful to watch."
The same, Trotz said.
"They're oiled machines," he added.
Phil Esposito, the hall of famer who still travels to Russia to play with the guys he played against in the famous 1972 Summit Series, had this to say about Ovechkin:
"What makes him great is that he shoots. He constantly shoots. He knows what to do with the puck. This is the best I've ever seen him play. I thought he had a hell of a year. But he does shoot the puck an awful lot."
"I read somewhere that Kucherov said that he likes passing the puck and getting an assist more than he likes scoring goals," Esposito said. "If he said that, he's not a goal scorer, period. He could be as good as Ovechkin. He's got just as good a shot."
Tom Jones joins Rick Stroud to discuss the Eastern Conference final between the Lightning and Capitals and offers his prediction for the series. #TBLightning #GoBolts #ALLCAPS @TB_Times @NFLSTROUD @TomWJones https://t.co/qIfcodwHyQ— TampaBayTimesSports (@TBTimes_Sports) May 9, 2018
Caps forward Brett Connolly, the sixth overall pick in 2010 by the Lightning, played with Kucherov before being traded to the Bruins, and spent this season playing with Ovechkin after signing with Washington in the offseason.
"(Ovechkin is) arguably the best goal scorer of all time," Connolly said. "Just the way he shoots the puck, how hungry he is to score goals, I think that's what separates him from other guys. When he gets a shot off in a spot where he likes it it's tough for the goalie. He's got a knack for scoring big goals. He's hungry for it."
"Kuch is a little smaller, a little quicker," he said. "I played with Kuch a little bit. They're just guys who work at their game and want to be better and have that natural ability."
Ovechkin was a great example for Kucherov. Both passed on the big money for the KHL, the Russian hockey league, to chase stardom and a Stanley Cup.
Kucherov still marvels at what Ovechkin can do.
"The puck always seems to find him in the right place. He always knows where it's going to be," Kucherov said. "There's a reason why he's scored so many goals, consistently, year after year. It's tough to be that consistent over time and he's done it. It's just impressive. He's the greatest one and it's fun to watch him year after year stay at the same level and raise his level. It's great that he's from Russia."
Contact Roger Mooney at [email protected] Follow @rogermooney50