Saturday, June 23, 2018
Tampa Bay Lightning

Lightning's Nikita Kucherov has sharpshooting skills that can't be taught

PITTSBURGH — Watch closely Nikita Kucherov's tying goal late in Game 4 against the Islanders in the last playoff round and you'll see all elements that make him one of the league's most dynamic scorers.

"The normal hockey fan is watching that play and saying, 'What a great shot,' " said former Lightning captain Dave Andreychuk, a 640-goal scorer. "But there's a lot that goes into it."

With linemates Tyler Johnson and Alex Killorn forechecking behind the New York net, Kucherov zipped around them and zigzagged into the slot before darting to a soft spot in the left circle, creating a passing lane.

"He knows how to get in the right spot," Andreychuk said.

"You can call it sneaky," Lightning wing Jonathan Drouin said.

Kucherov wasted no time after getting a Johnson pass, instantly firing as goalie Thomas Greiss moved left to right.

"His ability to get pucks on and off his stick is amazing," assistant coach Steve Thomas said. "That's 80 percent (of) shooting the puck, the art of deception."

Kucherov beat Greiss below the blocker to force overtime in a 2-1 win.

Kucherov's shot isn't even the hardest on the Lightning, but it's accurate. "He can thread the needle," said Lightning founder and Hall of Fame forward Phil Esposito. "He's got a knack for the net."

Kucherov, 22, has shown that this postseason. He is tied for the league lead with nine playoff goals as the Lightning prepares for Game 1 of the Eastern Conference final against the Penguins tonight at Consol Energy Center.

"I'm just lucky," he said, smiling.

But others know better. Ask some of the game's all-time goal scorers and they'll break down Kucherov's "deadly combination," as Andreychuk calls it.

"It's almost become a joke now," captain Steven Stamkos said. "When it's in the third period and (Kucherov) hasn't scored yet, 'When is he going to score?' It's worked out so far."

The smarts

The Lightning is in trouble, down a goal in the final minute of Game 3 against the Islanders, desperately hoping for a 6-on-5 score to force overtime.

Off an offensive zone faceoff, Kucherov fades back in the high slot as Drouin controls the puck along the left boards. The Islanders lose Kucherov, who steps between New York's John Tavares and Frans Nielsen to accept a Drouin pass and fire the puck past Greiss.

"I knew he was going to be in the right spot," Drouin said. "He always is."

The score is 5-5. The Lightning wins in overtime for a 2-1 series lead.

Kucherov said it's just hockey sense. But it's something general manager Steve Yzerman says you can't teach.

"He just has an unbelievable hockey IQ," assistant Thomas says. "That allows him to see the ice the way he does and anticipate plays."

Said Yzerman: "Goal scorers, they know how to get in position. They sense where the puck is going to be. They see the open net."

Stamkos pointed to Kucherov's third-period breakaway goal in the series-clinching Game 5 on Sunday against the Islanders, saying the Russian wing knows "when to cheat a little bit."

"That's one thing I learned from a young age with Marty (St. Louis, the former Lightning forward). You've got to get to those areas," Stamkos said. "That's something that's just a natural instinct of certain guys, and (Kucherov has) that. Everybody on the ice, including (the other) team, knows the puck is probably going to you, and you still find a way to score. That's because you're waiting in the weeds there."

The shot

Six minutes into the Lightning's playoff opener against the Red Wings, Johnson streaks up the left side, knowing Kucherov is trailing on the right for a rush.

Johnson cuts to the slot and feeds Kucherov for a rocket one-timer, which Red Wings goalie Jimmy Howard helplessly reaches for with his glove, the puck soaring over his shoulder.

"(Kucherov's) shot is a little bit like (Alex Ovechkin's), where he changes direction on the shot, so that's tough for goalies," Johnson said.

Kucherov's shot isn't as blistering as Ovechkin's, or maybe even Stamkos', but his quick release and accuracy make his special.

"Half the battle is hitting the net," Thomas said. "And (Kucherov) rarely misses."

Esposito said that if Kucherov has a fault, it is that he doesn't shoot enough. Kucherov's 209 shots in the regular season were 51st in the league and second on his team (Stamkos had 216). Kucherov still had 30 goals, one more than he had in 2014-15, but Ovechkin said he has the potential to score 50.

"(Kucherov is) the type of guy that should never think about passing," Esposito said.

Ovechkin was No. 1 at 398 shots this season. Esposito holds the NHL season record with 550.

"I never looked at the corners of the net," Esposito said. "I aimed for the goalie because I figured nine times out of 10 I'd miss him. It's like playing golf. Aim for the tree and you'll probably miss it."

The will

When asked how Kucherov has elevated his game, Lightning coach Jon Cooper pointed to his heart: "It's what you have in here."

Thomas said that what might be the most underrated aspect of Kucherov's game is how tenacious he is on the forecheck. Kucherov, listed at 5 feet 11 and 178 pounds, is far from a power forward.

"He'll come up with pucks in the corners," Thomas said. "That's the determination factor to win those battles. He's not a big guy, but he wins battles all the time."

Retired NHL forward Jeremy Roenick, who had 513 career goals, said that competitive nature, that grit, is what separates the "great players from the average players."

"There's a lot of intangibles in scoring goals, but one thing that remains constant is the determination to go to those high-traffic areas where you know you're going to feel pain in order to score a goal," said Roenick, an analyst for NBC. "And Kucherov is not a guy who is afraid to go in there, and he goes in there with reckless abandon, to tell you the truth."

That passion is evident in Kucherov's relentless work ethic. He often is the last Lightning player on the ice in practice. He'll work on his shot, his skating.

"There's always something to learn," Kucherov said.

Yzerman credits Kucherov for showing a "real willingness and eagerness to be a really complete hockey player."

And the forward is clutch.

Among active players, he is tied for second in fastest to 20 playoff goals (38 games), behind only Ovechkin (26), the Elias Sports Bureau says.

"(Kucherov) is a (heck) of a player," Esposito said. "I really like the guy. He's the type of player that warms the cockles of my heart because I was a player that liked to score, and he obviously likes it. He just makes me feel good."

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