Wednesday, February 21, 2018
Tampa Bay Lightning

Lightning’s Stamkos-Kucherov pairing has familiar feel

captain Steven Stamkos says his chemistry with Nikita Kucherov reminds him of his days with Marty St. Louis.

They think the same way. They share the same instincts, deceptiveness. And, of course, there’s the world-class skill.

Watching Stamkos and Kucherov, even St. Louis can’t help but have flashbacks.

"I definitely see some resemblance of when me and Stamkos played together," St. Louis said. "It’s great to see. They look like they’re having fun out there."

Fun? They’re having a blast. And why not? The linemates are dominating the league, lifting the Lightning to a franchise-best 9-1-1 start heading into tonight’s game against the Ducks. Stamkos (21 points) and Kucherov (19) were the top two scorers in the league entering Friday, and you might be surprised how they’ve gotten there.

Stamkos, a two-time 50-goal scorer, has been the set-up man with a league-best 17 assists, with Kucherov, a league-high 12 goals, the finisher.

"Is Stamkos Marty now?" coach Jon Cooper quipped. "And ‘Kuch’ is ‘Stammer.’?"

This isn’t necessarily a transformation for Stamkos, who has always believed he had it in him to be a creator. He just never has had to be one, especially while playing alongside St. Louis, who assisted on 101 of Stamkos’ 325 career goals.

Stamkos’ and Kucherov’s roles will eventually reverse as opponents adjust to their pairing, but Kucherov has taken pressure off Stamkos, who has made people forget he missed most of last season with knee surgery. The two have tied St. Louis’ franchise record for longest season-opening point streak at 11 games. Stamkos and Kucherov credit versatile linemate Vladislav Namestnikov as the perfect complement.

"I feel like I can be a playmaker as well, when the circumstances call for it," Stamkos said. "When I played with Marty, for as long as I was, he was the guy that told me to get him the puck and get open. I didn’t necessarily have to be put in an area to try to make plays. I was trying to get open and shoot the puck every time I could.

"But, now, I’ll try to get Kuch the shots right now because he’s the best in the league at it at this moment. So why wouldn’t you want to get him the puck?"

That Stamkos and Kucherov share similar chemistry to Stamkos and St. Louis shouldn’t come as a surprise. St. Louis, a future Hall of Famer, has left his finger­prints on the league’s most potent one-two punch.

•••

Kucherov’s first year in the NHL, 2013-14, was St. Louis’ last with the Lightning.

But Kucherov made sure to pick up everything he could from the 2003-04 league MVP, even little things, such as how St. Louis taped his stick and his pre- and post-practice routines. Kucherov thought it was cool that he did some of the same stuff. The Russian also watched how Stamkos and St. Louis played together, reviewing old highlights.

"I always looked up to them and see how they supported each other, how they talked, how they moved the puck, where Marty was getting open," Kucherov, 24, said

Kucherov wasn’t shy in asking St. Louis questions.

"I always thought that kid could feel the game, he was going to do great things," St. Louis said. "I remember many days after practice with him, shooting pucks. He had broken English, but he really liked talking hockey, and he was fun to be around."

•••

Stamkos said he learned from St. Louis that play without the puck is just as important as play with it.

It’s about finding ways to get open for your linemates, making an educated guess about where the puck is going to go.

"That’s something that for Kuch comes naturally to him," Stamkos, 27, said.

Part of what makes Kucherov special is how deceptive he is on the ice, somehow finding ways to get "lost." He does it with his sneaky change of speeds in skating and with his elite hockey sense. Stamkos, in a sense, speaks the same language.

"It’s almost being unpredictably predictable," Stamkos said. "I don’t even know if that makes sense. It makes sense for me and Kuch, so that’s all that matters. It’s just knowing what he’s going to do but the other team not knowing what he’s going to do. That makes more sense."

On Kucherov’s last-second goal in Tuesday’s 5-1 win in Carolina, he carried the puck into the Hurricanes’ zone and made a no-look drop pass to Stamkos, who curled behind him. Stamkos patiently circled behind the net, knowing Kucherov would be at the left post for what turned into a tap-in. Of Kucherov’s 12 goals, Stamkos has assisted on nine.

They watch video and often stay after practice to work on their shots and potential plays. Kucherov, who started his five- or six-days-a-week summer workouts in early July, has a drive that has rubbed off on Stamkos.

"I was pushing Marty, and Kuch is truly pushing me," Stamkos said. "To see him work as hard as he does at his game, I want to be right there with him."

Joe Smith can be reached at [email protected] Follow @TBTimes_JSmith.

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