Tuesday, December 12, 2017
Tampa Bay Lightning

Kucherov impresses Lightning with scoring touch

NEWARK, N.J. — In just about any other game, the move Nikita Kucherov pulled off in Tuesday's shootout against the Capitals would have been big news.

The Lightning's rookie right wing skated in with speed, made a couple of dekes, then used a slow, one-handed, backhand drag of the puck to put it past befuddled goaltender Philipp Grubauer.

It was Peter Forsberg-esque and a 10-bell effort that was lost amid a crushing 6-5 loss and Kucherov's hesitancy to blow his own horn other than to say the move wasn't planned.

"It's just a shootout," Kucherov said. "I don't even know what to say."

Consider it, then, simply another addition to the impressive body of work Kucherov has put together since his callup from AHL Syracuse. In eight games Kucherov has three goals — one in each of his past two games — is plus-3 and has 22 shots while averaging 14:07 of ice time.

On an injury-bitten team living off the contributions and substantial depth of its AHL affiliate, Kucherov, 20, is the shooting star, so much so that he appears to have been moved up to the first power-play unit for tonight's game with the Devils at the Prudential Center.

"He can score," coach Jon Cooper said. "We have to find a way to get him some ice in those offensive situations."

"He's got a great set of skills," captain Marty St. Louis said. "He's dangerous in front of the net, no doubt."

That said, there was a settling-in period.

Kucherov scored in his first NHL game, Nov. 25 against the Rangers, and on his first shot. That created expectations. So when Kucherov went five games without getting his second goal, frustration set in.

And that is when Cooper stepped in.

"He said, 'Don't be frustrated. Play good in the D zone and don't worry about scoring goals. It will come,' " Kucherov said. "That gave me some support."

Kucherov scored against the Capitals. In Thursday's 2-1 shootout win over the Red Wings, his goal with 43.7 seconds left in the second period tied the score 1-1.

"It all has to do with his play away from the puck, and that's what he's really concentrating on," Cooper said. "When you concentrate on that part of the game, the puck seems to find you."

Anticipating where the puck is going is one of Kucherov's best attributes. He is especially deft at splitting the opposing defense at the blue line to set himself up for potential breakaways.

"He's got a great sense of the game, extremely high hockey IQ," Cooper said. "He's deceptively quick, and he can dart into areas and almost get to areas before the puck knows it's going there, if that makes any sense. He's a step and a half ahead of most people out there."

None of this means Kucherov, 5 feet 11, 171 pounds, has a permanent roster spot. As the team gets healthy, decisions will have to be made, and the Lightning is not about to rush a player in his first professional season.

But Kucherov is giving Tampa Bay something to think about.

And a shootout goal to remember.

"Not too many guys are going to pull that off, and he did it with ease and grace and confidence," Cooper said. "The sky's the limit for him."

Damian Cristodero can be reached at [email protected]

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