TAMPA — You could sense it early Tuesday night.
Lightning wing Nikita Kucherov was feeling it.
Take his second goal in the 6-1 win over the Islanders. On a power play, Kucherov darted from the blue line into the left circle. Using defenseman Johnny Boychuk as a screen, Kucherov slipped a wrist shot into a tiny opening by goalie Thomas Greiss' blocker. "That was a 'Kuch' goal," coach Jon Cooper said. "There wasn't much room. Only a few guys that could put those in."
But it was more than Kucherov's scoring, his four points (two goals, two assists) matching a career high. He was a beast at both ends of the ice, from board battles to backchecks, the most encouraging sign the 23-year-old Russian is finding his groove. "This was Kuch's best game of the year," Cooper said. "He commanded the puck. Every time he went into the pile, he came out with it."
It has been a weird start to the season for Kucherov. There was a contract saga that lingered all summer and through September's World Cup of Hockey. It ended two days before the season opener, when the restricted free agent settled for a three-year "bridge" deal — one with a lower cap hit until he gets closer to unrestricted free agency and can increase his value or leverage — worth $4.67 million annually.
Kucherov rushed to Tampa Bay on a flight from Russia, where he was holding out. A delay forced him to spend an extra-night layover in New York. Kucherov made it to the final practice of training camp, but it should come as no surprise as he felt rusty in the first few games of the regular season. Having not played a game in three weeks, his legs felt heavy. His hands were "bad."
Kucherov said he began feeling good in Ottawa on Oct. 22, the opener of the six-game road trip that ended Tuesday. A four-point performance against Toronto came three days later. But an upper-body injury suffered Oct. 27 in Montreal threatened to slow him; it forced him to miss one game. So getting two first-period goals Tuesday was a big boost.
"Kuch is a guy that you want him that confident," said captain Steven Stamkos, Kucherov's linemate. "You want him to get touches early, especially coming off that little injury he had. When you have a game where you get some points, you start to feel good about your game. It's only going to help."
As gifted as Kucherov is — goalie Ben Bishop says he's one of the most skilled players in the league — it starts with his underrated two-way game. His dazzling display with the puck is sparked by his play without it.
"You care about (defense) first, and then think about offense," Kucherov said. "You've got to protect your net. Goals will come."
Tuesday's goals gave Kucherov three and a team-high-matching 12 points in 10 games heading into tonight's showdown with Boston at Amalie Arena. "He was on top of his skating, winning 50-50 (battles)," Cooper said. "When that's going on for Kuch, he's a special player. So hopefully there's more to come."
DROUIN UPDATE: Wing Jonathan Drouin was considered day-to-day and apparently feeling better after leaving Tuesday's game in the first following a high hit by Islanders defenseman Calvin de Haan. De Haan won't have a league disciplinary hearing.