TAMPA — The Lightning will pay for Nikita Kucherov’s frustration by having to face its mounting playoff challenge without its biggest star Sunday night.
The league’s Department of Player Safety on Saturday suspended Kucherov for Game 3 of the first-round series against the Blue Jackets for boarding Markus Nutivaara in Game 2 on Friday.
Late in the third period of the Lightning’s 5-1 loss, Kucherov tripped Nutivaara at the goal line, sending the defenseman sprawling. As Nutivaara tried to get up, Kucherov skated up to him and drove him into the boards. Kucherov was penalized two minutes for tripping and five for boarding, and was given a game misconduct.
The loss left the Lightning trailing in the series 2-0.
The league issued the suspension after a phone hearing Saturday morning. It said Kucherov delivered “a dangerous hit on a player in an exposed, defenseless position.” It also said Kucherov’s hit exemplified message sending, coming late in a game against an opponent the Lightning will face again Sunday night.
“While we understand frustration often occurs late in the game, dangerous or retaliatory plays delivered in the final minutes of a playoff game will be viewed in context and punished accordingly,” a video explaining the ruling said.
Lightning Jon Cooper kept his thoughts on the hit to himself after Game 2. Blue Jackets coach John Tortorella called the hit self-explanatory.
Beginning to erase its 2-0 deficit — a deficit Tampa Bay has overcome only once before to win a series, a 2003 first-round series against the Capitals — will be harder without league scoring champion Kucherov.
“Obviously you can’t replace a Kucherov with his skill and the way he sees the game, what he brings to our team,” Ryan McDonagh said. “So the only thing we can do is try to rally around it and every body raise their level a little bit more here.”
Kucherov wasn’t the only player to show frustration in Game 2. Brayden Point engaged in a fight with defenseman Zach Werenski in the first period with the Lightning trailing 2-0. Victor Hedman joined the scrum that resulted from Kucherov’s hit and received a game misconduct.
Kucherov is the only one sitting out Game 3, though.
Kucherov’s past problems with frustration have resulted in different reactions. In prior seasons, he might have taken plays off or appeared to check out when things weren’t going his way. This year, Cooper and captain Steven Stamkos have praised Kucherov for not letting his frustration show.
“It’s a tough emotion to control,” Cooper said. “It comes a little bit with age, but it’s a tough one. It shows you the passion players have and how much (Kucherov) has for the game and to win. There can be a fine line there. It’s a growth test; he’ll have to grow from this.”
Kucherov tested the limits in last year’s playoffs. He delivered a massive hit to the Devils’ Sami Vatanen in Game 4 of the first-round series. The league didn’t suspend Kucherov, but it was a different type of hit. He delivered the blow in open ice, but he did not leave his feet or make initial contact with Vatanen’s head.
The Lightning took line rushes without Kucherov in practice Saturday. Cooper said he knew what he’d do with Kucherov in the lineup and had to figure out what it looked like without him.
Judging by practice, the answer was an Ondrej Palat-Brayden Point-Tyler Johnson line and Ryan Callahan returning to the fourth line from being a healthy scratch.
McDonagh suggested that mixing up the lines could be refreshing. The Lighting’s top two lines looked stale in Game 2.
“We’ve been preaching since Day 1 that we have some of the best depth in the NHL,” J.T. Miller said. “I have confidence in the group. I know we all do as well.”
Callahan’s return could be a good thing brought about by a bad thing. He has 119 playoffs games in his nine-year career, including 15 in the Lightning’s run to the Eastern Conference final last year.
The Lightning looked to Mathieu Joseph’s speed and Adam Erne’s size over Callahan’s experience in the latter half of the regular season. But Callahan could add a spark to a team in desperate need of a jolt.
Contact Diana C. Nearhos at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow @dianacnearhos.