New Lightning line combos coincide with Nikita Kucherov’s revival

DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD   |   Times
Tampa Bay Lightning right wing Nikita Kucherov (86) and Tampa Bay Lightning center Brayden Point (21) pause to celebrate Kucherov's goal during the third period of Saturdayââ\u0082¬â\u0084¢s (12/2/17) game between the Tampa Bay Lightning and the San Jose Sharks at Amalie Arena in Tampa.
DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times Tampa Bay Lightning right wing Nikita Kucherov (86) and Tampa Bay Lightning center Brayden Point (21) pause to celebrate Kucherov's goal during the third period of Saturdayââ\u0082¬â\u0084¢s (12/2/17) game between the Tampa Bay Lightning and the San Jose Sharks at Amalie Arena in Tampa.
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TAMPA — Steven Stamkos scored the Lightning’s lone third-period goal in a 3-2 loss in Boston on the final night of the recent road trip, but though the comeback try fell short, coach Jon Cooper said his team showed some life in the final 20 minutes.

The good habits that carried the Lightning to the best start in franchise history returned in that period Wednesday. Though the goals didn’t, Cooper saw signs his team was emerging from a six-game slump that had produced two wins.

Nikita Kucherov, Cooper said, was one of the players who looked like his old self.

That continued Saturday when Kucherov scored a pair of goals in a 5-2 win against the Sharks. The goals snapped a season-long six-game goalless streak for the NHL’s leading scorer.

"You can’t score every game," Kucherov said.

No, but for a while it seemed like he could. Kucherov had at least one goal in the Lightning’s first seven games and scored in 15 of its first 19.

"He is probably our best player," Ondrej Palat said. "He’s a leader, and a couple of games, things didn’t go for him. The puck was bouncing. But he was good (Saturday)."

Said Cooper: "It’s just a matter of time and it would work out for him."

In an effort to jump-start his offense, Cooper changed his lines late in the Boston game and carried the changes over to Saturday.

Tyler Johnson was placed on the top line with Stamkos and Vladislav Namestnikov, and Kucherov was dropped to the second line with Palat and Brayden Point.

"When things aren’t going well, especially offensively, you got to find something that works," Stamkos said.

Said Palat, "Vladdy, ‘Kuch’ and ‘Stammer’ were great to start the season, and there are some games where the (opponent) will defend and work hard on them, and a couple of games where they didn’t play that good. You can always go back to the Stammer-Kuch-Vladdy line, but right now I think it’s good we switch the lines, and we got a little life."

It did appear the new lines energized the offense. Not only did Kucherov find his scoring touch, Johnson had two goals for his first scores since Oct. 24.

"I guess you could say (the offense was energized)," Cooper said.

Kucherov’s reaction was equally muted. When asked what he felt about the move to another line, he said, "I didn’t feel anything. You’ve got to play with everyone, and (Cooper) decided to put us with different lines. It doesn’t matter who you play with."

It probably doesn’t for Kucherov, who can create his own scoring chances. With his performance against the Sharks, he passed Stamkos for the NHL lead in points with 38 and tied the Capitals’ Alex Ovechkin for the league lead with 19 goals.

"He looked better in the third (period in Boston) than the first two periods. We all did," Palat said. "(Saturday) he looked awesome, and when he’s on his game, he’s our leader. So when he’s on his A game, everybody follows him."

Notes: The Sharks’ Joe Thornton was fined $5,000 Sunday for slashing Johnson in the second period Saturday. The fine is the highest allowed under NHL rules. … Defenseman Jamie McBain was reassigned to AHL Syracuse. He was called up Saturday with Braydon Coburn out with a lower-body injury but was a healthy scratch.

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