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Lightning’s Nikita Kucherov is a special combination of skill and instinct

Even other players enjoy watching what Lightning wing can do.
Nikita Kucherov (86) moves the puck through the neutral zone during a game last month against the Montreal Canadiens in Tampa. [DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times ]
Published Jan. 3
Updated Jan. 4

LOS ANGELES — When Nikita Kucherov gets the puck, you pay attention. Player, coach, fan, it doesn't matter. The Lightning wing is just fun to watch.

"We joke on the bench that whenever 'Kuch' gets the puck, we're just waiting for something good to happen," captain Steven Stamkos said.

Kucherov, who was selected for the All-Star Game and named the league's first star for December, is on an impressive tear. He had a point in 21 of the previous 22 games and an 11-game point streak going into Thursday's game against the Kings. And he sat atop the league with 65 points.

Stamkos finds Kucherov's consistency most impressive. Most players have a rough game here and there, or one in which they just can't score. Stamkos pointed to his four or five chances Monday night without a goal in a 2-1 win overtime win against the Ducks. Kucherov has had only one game without a point since Nov. 13.

"Everything looks so simple for him," Stamkos said, "and almost elegant our there because of how gracefully he's moving the puck and skating. He's just a guy who makes the game look really easy, when the things you're doing are really hard."

Kucherov doesn't give himself much credit. Asked about his impressive month, he said that with the team playing so well, someone has to get the points. But it's not by chance that he's the one getting most of them.

Kucherov works for his points. Even when the shot he takes looks as nonchalant as if he were dumping the puck, it's because he's good enough to make it look like that.

Take the Ducks game. Kucherov showed off his instincts on a first-period goal. He took a great pass from defenseman Erik Cernak and sent a one-timer past goaltender John Gibson before Gibson could even see what was happening.

That's one of the things that makes Kucherov special. He sees things coming together before they actually happen. Tyler Johnson is having fun on Kucherov's line because he's learning those things.

"Sometimes you're thinking (about Kucherov), 'Ah, okay, he might be in the wrong spot here,' and sure enough, he ends up with the puck," coach Jon Cooper said. "He just has that innate ability to be where he needs to be, and the skill level, that's elite as well."

Kucherov's sixth sense is part natural instinct and part in-depth study. He watches a lot of video and is always trying to learn more about the game and the players he's up against.

"When you have offensive instincts like that, mixed with the skill set he possesses, you get a guy that's leading the league in points," Stamkos said.

Kucherov is a combination of hard work, natural hockey sense and skill. Recently he has been showing it off in many ways.

On his 11-game point streak, he was showing off a lot of playmaking (35 assists in 22 games), but the plays weren't all the same. He one-timed passes on the rush, cycled on power plays, drew defensemen away from a linemate. The same goes for his goals.

Monday's one-timer was a case of always being ready. Kucherov didn't necessarily expect Cernak to pass; the rookie defenseman came down the slot with speed and could have taken the shot. But he was ready for Cernak to pass. Kucherov stayed on Cernak's wing, stick out, so he could react in a split second, when Cernak placed the puck right on his tape.

"I think we have the best seat in the house," Johnson said. "Some of the things he can do, I don't think anyone else in the world can. It's pretty fun to watch. It's really fun to play with."

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