Friday, April 20, 2018
Tampa Bay Lightning

First-quarter accolades for Lightning wing Nikita Kucherov

TAMPA — Penguins captain Sidney Crosby is widely considered the best player in the world.

Some think Oilers phenom Connor McDavid is a close second, despite being in just his second season.

But when ESPN national hockey writer Scott Burnside picked his Hart Trophy leader for league MVP through the first quarter of the season, neither Crosby nor McDavid got the nod.

It was Lightning wing Nikita Kucherov.

"What's really impressed me with Kucherov is his pretty dramatic evolution," Burnside said. "I don't think people understand what kind of talent he represents."

With captain Steven Stamkos out due to knee surgery, Kucherov, 23, has elevated his game — and national profile — Burnside believes. How much so remains to be seen, with all-star voting beginning last week and Kucherov currently not in the top five among Atlantic Division fan voting. But Kucherov, on the ballot for the first time, is a deserving choice, having established himself among the game's elite. He entered Tuesday ranked second in the league in points (29), behind McDavid (34). Kucherov's 1.12 points per game trail only Stamkos, McDavid and Crosby.

"He's a top 10, 15 player in the league," Blues coach Ken Hitchcock said.

"He's one of the best players in the National Hockey League this year for sure," Capitals coach Barry Trotz said.

It's not like Kucherov is an unknown quantity. He has racked up 59 combined goals the past two seasons. More importantly, Kucherov has done it on the biggest stage, with 42 points in 45 career playoff games, leading the Lightning on back-to-back playoff runs. But on a team with more recognizable stars like Stamkos and Victor Hedman, even goalie Ben Bishop, Kucherov can fly under the radar.

But not to opposing coaches. Columbus coach John Tortorella considered giving Kucherov the ultimate sign of respect in a Nov. 24 meeting in Tampa. "I was thinking about locking onto Kucherov with one guy and playing 4-on-4 from there," Tortorella said. "That's how dangerous I thought he was."

Said Hitchcock: "He can do damage anywhere. He's fearless on the rush, he's fearless with the puck, he makes plays off the rush, he wins one-on-ones. He's not a big guy, but man, is he ever strong on the puck. He might be underrated if you don't play him very much, but if you play him a couple games, he's a hell of a player."

Kucherov's savvy impresses as much as his skill.

"He's got an uncanny knack where he gets lost and he's out of the end zone," Tortorella said. "We're always telling (our players), 'Look behind you, do the math,' especially when Kucherov is on the ice. He's got an uncanny feel for the game."

Trotz said jokingly, "He's probably wearing (camouflage) most of the time out there. He kind of blends into the trees. All of a sudden, he's there."

Trotz thinks Kucherov is a very underrated passer. "He makes some exceptional passes where you think there's not a (chance). He sends a rocket saucer pass through five sticks and legs."

Capitals star Alex Ovechkin, one of this generation's top scorers, played with fellow Russian Kucherov during September's World Cup of Hockey and noticed his two-way game.

"He's a tremendously skilled player," Ovechkin said. "He's got great shot, great vision. He's going to be one of the greatest players in the history of Russia."

Since Stamkos, out four months, suffered his injury Nov. 15 in Detroit, Kucherov has 11 points in 11 games, scoring seven of his 13 goals. Tampa Bay is 5-5-1 in that stretch. That's MVP material to Burnside.

"I think within the game, the coaches and GMs around the league understand what kind of talent Kucherov is," Burnside said. "But if you ask the casual fan, people who watch the game, I think now you're going to find people going, 'Oh yeah, Kucherov.' It won't be a great surprise that they see him finish second in the league in scoring. I think the shock value of that is going to diminish very quickly. That's the kind of player he is."

ROSTER MOVE: The Lightning reassigned defenseman Luke Witkowski and forward Michael Bournival to AHL Syracuse, a good sign wing Jonathan Drouin (undisclosed) and defenseman Jason Garrison (lower body) are improving.

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

Comments
Lightning’s Hedman a Norris finalist again

Lightning’s Hedman a Norris finalist again

The Lightning's Victor Hedman is a finalist for the second consecutive year for the Norris Trophy, given to the top defenseman in the league. The other two finalists are Drew Doughty of the Kings and P.K. Subban of the Predators, it was announced Thu...
Updated: 9 hours ago
Turns out, Lightning’s Andrei Vasilevskiy is ready for the playoffs

Turns out, Lightning’s Andrei Vasilevskiy is ready for the playoffs

TAMPA — The second period was not even four minutes old Wednesday night when Devils right wing Patrick Maroon skated all alone toward Andrei Vasilevskiy. It was a moment that could turn a game and even a series.A goal and the score would be tie...
Updated: 10 hours ago
Shaquem Griffin: ‘Lightning is going to win the Stanley Cup’

Shaquem Griffin: ‘Lightning is going to win the Stanley Cup’

Former UCF and Lakewood High standout Shaquem Griffin understandably has been focused on the NFL draft next week in Arlington, Tex., where he is projected as a potential second-day pick.But the Lightning's playoff run  hasn't escaped his attenti...
Updated: 10 hours ago
NHL makes right call in not suspending Lightning’s Nikita Kucherov

NHL makes right call in not suspending Lightning’s Nikita Kucherov

The NHL got it right.Nikita Kucherov, the Lightning's top scorer and best player so far in these playoffs, will play Saturday's Game 5 against New Jersey. He's not going to be suspended for his vicious hit on a Devils player in Tampa Bay's Game 4 vic...
Published: 04/19/18
Sports Day Tampa Bay podcast: Nikita Kucherov drives Lightning past Devils

Sports Day Tampa Bay podcast: Nikita Kucherov drives Lightning past Devils

Nikita Kucherov scores two goals and delivers some big hits as the Lightning beats the Devils, 3-1, in a physical Game 4 that pushes Tampa Bay to within one win of clinching the series.Meanwhile, the Rays beat the Rangers to as Jake Faria pitche...
Published: 04/19/18
Lightning holds off Devils and David Puddy

Lightning holds off Devils and David Puddy

NEWARK, N.J. — The Devils pulled out all the stops for Wednesday's Game 4 of their Stanley Cup quarter final series with the Lightning by inviting David Puddy at the Prudential Center.For those who do not know who he is, Puddy was Elaine's...
Published: 04/19/18
Lightning stands up to Devils, pushes its way to 3-1 series lead

Lightning stands up to Devils, pushes its way to 3-1 series lead

NEWARK, N.J. — Bachman-Turner Overdrive's Taking Care of Business shook the walls of the Lightning locker room not long after it dispatched the Devils in Wednesday's Game 4 of their first-round playoff series.The 3-1 win was sparked by Nikita K...
Published: 04/18/18
Roger Mooney’s takeaways from Lightning-Devils Game 4

Roger Mooney’s takeaways from Lightning-Devils Game 4

I guess the lesson here is never believe a hockey player when he says what happens in a scrum at the end of a playoff game doesn't carry over into the next game. It sure looks like the Lightning and Devils won't be vacationing together this summer.Th...
Published: 04/18/18
Lightning-Devils: How Tampa Bay worked its way to a 3-1 series lead

Lightning-Devils: How Tampa Bay worked its way to a 3-1 series lead

Times columnist Tom Jones gives his thoughts while watching the broadcast of Game 4 of the series between the Lightning and Devils:Hard work beats everythingWe watch the Lightning all season long and marvel at its skill. Nikita Kucherov, Steven ...
Published: 04/18/18
Restraint? Ha. Lightning-Devils mix it up in early going of Game 4

Restraint? Ha. Lightning-Devils mix it up in early going of Game 4

NEWARK, N.J. — Both sides were in agreement Tuesday that the shenanigans during the final minute of Monday's Game 3 would not carry over to Game 4."I think the emotion of a game in a series carries over, (but) what happened at end I don't think...
Published: 04/18/18