Nikita Kucherov returns for Game 4, but will he show up?

Nothing about this Columbus series has been a good look for the Lightning star and presumed MVP of the NHL.
Three games into the 2019 playoffs, Nikita Kucherov is scoreless and minus-2. He also was suspended for a game. [AP Photo/Chris O'Meara]
Three games into the 2019 playoffs, Nikita Kucherov is scoreless and minus-2. He also was suspended for a game. [AP Photo/Chris O'Meara]
Published April 15
Updated April 15

COLUMBUS, Ohio — Two games into the 2019 playoffs, the presumed MVP of the league was scoreless and minus-2. He was also suspended for Game 3 for hitting a defenseless player. And, after Sunday’s morning skate, he declined to say much about any of this.

Call it the Kucherov Hat Trick.

This is not a good look for a player in search of a legacy. He was sitting alone in a locker room Sunday morning because the rest of the team had already headed back to the hotel to rest up before a game he wouldn’t play in. And he was smugly deflecting most inquiries by saying “no comment’’ or “next question.’’

It’s true, the Lightning down 3-0 in the first round against the Blue Jackets has much larger concerns than Nikita Kucherov’s demeanor. But it’s worth wondering if Kucherov’s inability to accept responsibility for either his performance or his actions has something to do with the way he occasionally disappears when the stakes are high.

Games 6 and 7 of the Eastern Conference final last year?

He was scoreless and minus-3.

Games 6 and 7 of the Eastern Conference final in 2016?

He was scoreless and minus-4.

Kucherov had two goals in Game 6 of the Eastern Conference final in 2015, but they were meaningless scores while the Lightning was trailing 5-1 and 6-2. He failed to score in Game 7 of that conference final, or in Game 6 of the Stanley Cup final.

There is some degree of cherry picking to single out the worst games of a superstar’s career but, more than any other league, the NHL defines its game by the postseason. And when Tampa Bay has needed him most, Kucherov has been more forgettable than memorable.

And to compound it, he seems to think he owes no explanation.

This isn’t about whether Kucherov is friendly with the media. This is about being accountable. This is about earning your $5.5 million salary. This is about being an adult.

The fans who show up at Amalie Arena and boost television ratings and buy overpriced hockey jerseys are invested in this team, and they deserve some explanation when things suddenly go sour.

Steven Stamkos has had the same scoring difficulties as Kucherov, but he has also sat in front of his locker and answered every question put to him.

It’s not pleasant, but it’s also not that difficult.

Kucherov’s trip and subsequent hit on defenseman Markus Nutivaara put the Lightning in a horrible situation going into one of the most critical games in franchise history.

Even if Kucherov does not believe the hit warranted a suspension — and it’s worth noting that absolutely no one has come to Kucherov’s defense on this — he still owed his team an apology.

And maybe he did that behind closed doors, but that’s not enough. There are thousands and thousands of fans who have cheered his name at Amalie Arena year after year and they want to know what he was thinking. They want to know if it was frustration that drove him to commit a senseless penalty in a game that was all but decided. They want to know if he feels any responsibility for Tampa Bay’s slow start.

There is no disputing Kucherov’s talent as a hockey player. His 2018-19 season will go down as one of the greatest individual performances in Tampa Bay sports history.

But players do not get to pick and choose their role in our memories. Or in our hearts. And right now, Kucherov’s place in Tampa Bay lore is a lot less impressive than it should be.

Petulance is not a good look on a professional.

It’s time to grow up.

Contact John Romano at [email protected]. Follow at @romano_tbtimes.

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