TAMPA — Lightning coach Jon Cooper refers to players who can pull fans out of their seats — players who make fans stand up in anticipation of what they might do next.
There aren’t many of them.
Nikita Kucherov is one of them.
Thursday against the Sabres, Kucherov and Tyler Johnson had a 2-on-1 in the second period that had the feeling of something big. The pair left two Sabres laid out on the ice and Kucherov’s 100th point of the season in the net.
MORE LIGHTNING: Photos of Lightning’s game against Buffalo
That tied the score at 1. Kucherov also scored in a shootout for a 2-1 Lightning win, its eighth straight.
On his milestone point, Buffalo defenseman Rasmus Dahlin dove to block the shooting lane and wing Jeff Skinner laid out, trying to catch up to the passing lane. Johnson slid the puck under Dahlin’s feet and in front of Skinner’s stick to an open Kucherov.
The NHL’s leading scorer fired a one-timer on net.
Point No. 100. Goal No. 30.
“A total goal-scorer’s goal,” Cooper called it.
In game No. 62, Kucherov became the fastest Lightning player to reach 100 points, and the first to do so twice with back-to-back 100-point seasons.
“It was a special moment,” Kucherov said.
Vinny Lecavalier was the previous fastest to 100 points, in 78 games in 2006-07. No NHL player had gotten there in 62 games or fewer since Mario Lemieux (44) and Jaromir Jagr (52) both did so in 1995-96.
“It’s kind of hard to believe,” Brayden Point said. “But then you watch the games and you see the chances (Kucherov) creates every night and you know you understand why he’s got that many points. He just makes our team better, his linemates, anyone who’s one the ice.”
Johnson stopped being surprised by things Kucherov does at the beginning of the year.
“Now it’s just expected of him,” Johnson said. “He’s unbelievable. I think he’s even going to get better, the way that he’s driven, the way he competes and works.”
Johnson was surprised when he turned and saw Kucherov, of all people, open on that second-period play, however. He wasn’t quite sure what the play was there but was happy to exploit it.
Kucherov’s reaction on the ice, a primal scream, said everything about how much the accomplishment means to him — even if he downplays it when asked.
“In the locker room after the game, you could tell how excited he was,” Cooper said. “And even more so, how excited our team was for him.”
Kucherov had a big game all-around. He put eight shots on net, some quality chances that Cooper was surprised didn’t go in.
This wasn’t just another goal in any old game. This was a tight game, one in which the Lightning trailed at the time Kucherov scored. Then he scored the winner in the shootout. It doesn’t count as a point, but it won the game. That’s what Kucherov does for this team.
“He’s got the skill. He’s a game changer,” Johnson said. “The game can be going one way and you can always rely on ‘Kuch’ to be able to take it and try to get the momentum for our side, making some unbelievable play that no one else can make.”
Kucherov is on pace for a nearly-unheard-of 135 points. That would be 27 more points than anyone on the Lightning has ever had. (Lecavalier had 108 in his one 100-point season.)
“There’s not a lot of secrets in this league,” Cooper said. “You see the way players are out against (Kucherov) every single night. He’s always facing the best (defense). Kuch is on the map in this league, and now he’s separated himself as one of the elite players in the best league in the world, and fun to watch.”
Tampa Bay won shootout 2-0.
First Period—1, Buffalo, Dahlin 7 (Eichel, Bogosian), 18:13. Penalties–Miller, TB, major (high sticking), 11:26.
Second Period—2, Tampa Bay, Kucherov 30 (Johnson), 11:10. Penalties–Larsson, BUF, (roughing), 12:13.
Third Period—None. Penalties–Bogosian, BUF, (delay of game), 3:58; Cernak, TB, (tripping), 6:55; Ristolainen, BUF, (tripping), 8:46; Point, TB, (roughing), 13:43; Point, TB, served by Erne, (holding), 13:43; Skinner, BUF, (roughing), 13:43.
Overtime_None. Penalties–Kucherov, TB, (roughing), 3:34; Ristolainen, BUF, (roughing), 3:34.
Shootout_Buffalo 0 (Eichel NG, Sobotka NG), Tampa Bay 2 (Stamkos G, Point NG, Kucherov G).
Shots on Goal—Buffalo 17-6-6-1_30. Tampa Bay 15-15-7-3_40. Power-play opportunities—Buffalo 0 of 4Tampa Bay 0 of 3. Goalies—Buffalo, Hutton 15-17-4 (40 shots-39 saves). Tampa Bay, Vasilevskiy 27-7-4 (30-29).
A—19,092 (19,092). T—2:48. Referees—Jean Hebert, Chris Lee. Linesmen—Greg Devorski, Libor Suchanek.