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The way it will have to be for Nikita Kucherov and Steven Stamkos

Nikita Kucherov and Steven Stamkos are scoring again, and not a moment too soon for Lightning
Tampa Bay Lightning right wing Nikita Kucherov celebrates his goal against the Vancouver Canucks with defenseman Anton Stralman (6) during the first period of an NHL hockey game Thursday, Feb. 8, 2018, in Tampa, Fla. (AP Photo/Chris O'Meara) TPA102
Tampa Bay Lightning right wing Nikita Kucherov celebrates his goal against the Vancouver Canucks with defenseman Anton Stralman (6) during the first period of an NHL hockey game Thursday, Feb. 8, 2018, in Tampa, Fla. (AP Photo/Chris O'Meara) TPA102
Published Feb. 9, 2018|Updated Feb. 9, 2018

TAMPA _ The Lightning got back on track Thursday night, fresh or not-so-fresh from an eight-game road trip broken up only by the All Star Game. It wasn't so much that they beat a bad Vancouver team, 5-2. It was that its best players were back to being its best players.

The drought is done.

You knew it as Nikita Kucherov celebrated his first goal in 11 games with arms upraised, as if it was a playoff OT winner. That might be needed soon enough. You knew it again a little later, when Steven Stamkos fired a one-timer for his 20th goal of the season, but just his third goal in the last 16 games.

When the playoffs arrive, and as trite as it sounds, your best players have to be your best players, and that would include Kucherov and Stamkos, who propelled the Lightning to the start that still has it leading the league, despite a recent 5-5 stretch.

The Bruins are suddenly breathing down the Lightning's neck. The Penguins seem to be getting ready for a run at a three-peat.

Your best will have to be at their best.

If that's unfair, well, tough.

"It goes with the territory," Stamkos said.

Lightning coach Jon Cooper, looking to jump-start things, juggled his lines Thursday, breaking up Stamkos and Kucherov. It was worth a try and it worked.

I'd rather wobble now rather than later. You go 5-5 in April, and if four of the losses come at the same time, you're done. I'd rather have Kucherov go goal-less for 11 straight today than ice cold in May.

It didn't matter how Kucherov gave the Lightning a 1-0 lead Thursday. His goal against the Canucks neither razzled nor dazzled. It wasn't the sleight of hand or stick like his jaw-dropper in front of all the other All Stars. Thursday, it was enough that he was in front of the net, stuck with it and flipped a backhander over the line. His arms shot up. A weight lifted and then some.

"It wasn't one of those ones that he ripped into the back of the net, but he was sniffing around the net, he found a spot and it went in," Cooper said. "One of the coaches made a joke that Kuch was 50 pounds lighter after that one went in. And then Stammer follows suit."

Said Stamkos: "Sometimes guy need a little spark, a team needs a little spark."

The Lightning have scoring punch up front that goes three lines deep. Yanni Gourde scored again Thursday, and beat Stamkos to 20 goals. Yanni Gourde.

But come April, it will have to be the best at their best. Any playoff run takes the village, and the Lightning have Andre Vasilevskiy in goal, but the village's mayors have to lead the way.

Kucherov and Stamkos are elected. It comes with the territory.

"We had a heck of a start to the season as a team," Cooper said. "The reason for that is because those guys were producing the way they were. It's hard to keep that going, sustain that production the whole year, especially this time of year when teams are really checking."

No matter. It comes with the territory.

Kucherov needed Thursday. That celebration said so. Blame it on that fabulous start, when he was scoring every night, when a 50-goal season seemed a lock. He was the best player in the NHL the first half of the season, the MVP. Kucherov was so good that even after his 11-game goal drought he remained atop the NHL scoring tables. He's still there.

And there's Stamkos, who opted to stay in Tampa Bay and broke fast this season.

But there's a different kind of season looming, and everything that went before it won't matter. Stumble in the playoffs and 50 pounds becomes a thousand pounds.

Stamkos has been there. He has 360 career goals, but has had his ups and downs in the playoffs. He has lived what Kucherov must have been living without a goal for a month. Tentative, passing up shots, seemingly lost.

"It's very frustrating when you're in the middle of it," Stamkos said. "You think you're never going to score again. Sometimes you just need a reminder, especially with the season Kuch is having, to just keep trying. He could have had two or three goals in Edmonton the other night, so to get kind of a little fluky backhander goal tonight, that's the thing that's going to get you going."

Kucherov didn't speak to media after Thursday's game. He completed a post-game workout. Besides, he had already done his talking. Actions, not words. The demand for that will only increase. The pressure will become greater.

It goes with the territory.

Contact Martin Fennelly at Follow @mjfennelly


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