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Lightning's Kucherov shines again on biggest stage

Lightning right wing Nikita Kucherov is cheered for his goal in Game 1 against the Red Wings, one of five goals he has in the series.
Lightning right wing Nikita Kucherov is cheered for his goal in Game 1 against the Red Wings, one of five goals he has in the series.
Published Apr. 21, 2016

TAMPA — Craig Button doesn't get it.

The NHL Network analyst and former Flames general manager will be talking hockey or listening to a broadcast and hear someone say that Lightning wing Nikita Kucherov is a good player, as if they're surprised.

"I want to say, 'No (kidding),' " Button said. "I don't know what people are watching. Kucherov is a star."

Kucherov, 22, might be the best player nobody talks about. That's changing as he shines again on the biggest stage. He led the playoffs with five goals and was tied for the lead with eight points entering Wednesday, including two power-play goals in Tuesday's 3-2 Game 4 win against the Red Wings that gave the Lightning a 3-1 series lead heading into tonight's Game 5 of the first-round matchup at Amalie Arena.

No player — not Blackhawks wing Patrick Kane, not Capitals wing Alex Ovechkin — has as many multipoint playoff games the past two years as Kucherov (10). He had 10 goals and 12 assists in 26 playoff games last year.

With captain Steven Stamkos sidelined with a blood clot this year, Kucherov has stepped up. And if Stamkos leaves as an unrestricted free agent this summer, Kucherov may become the Lightning's go-to guy.

Button said Kucherov already is that guy.

"Whether Stamkos is there or not, they're already building around Kucherov with him as a linchpin of their team," Button said. "He's a foundation player."

And a cheap one. Kucherov may be the best bargain in the league, a 30-goal scorer making $700,000. But not for long. Kucherov can be a restricted free agent this summer. Agent Scott Greenspun said no talks have started with the Lightning.

Button said Kucherov may get something similar to Vladimir Tarasenko's eight-year, $60 million deal with the Blues. Kucherov's price tag is going only up with his playoff performance. He has taken Stamkos' spot on the power play, shooting two rocket one-timers Tuesday for the team's first two goals.

"He's crazy dangerous," wing Jonathan Drouin said. "You can see on his shot. You give him a little room, a little spot at the top (of the net), usually that's where it goes."

But Kucherov is far from one-dimensional. He also can create his own scoring chances. There's a reason Ovechkin told the Tampa Bay Times of his fellow Russian, "I think easily (Kucherov) could score 50." That's high praise coming from Ovechkin, the only player to crack 50 this season.

"You can look at his skill set and say, 'That's pretty amazing,' " Lightning center Tyler Johnson said. "There's not too many guys in the league that can shoot the puck, pass and do the stickhandling like he does. But I think the biggest thing that amazes me about him is he has all that skill but he still works harder than anybody. He's a guy that works really hard off the ice. After practice, he's always the last guy to get off the ice."

Kucherov had to work his way up, getting picked in the second round (58th overall) in the 2011 draft. After a brief stay in the AHL, Kucherov scored on his first shot of his first shift in his NHL debut in November 2013. Kucherov went through some growing pains; the Lightning wanted him to improve his play in the defensive zone. He was even a healthy scratch for two games in the 2014 first-round playoff sweep by the Canadiens. Now Kucherov is one of the Lightning's best two-way forwards, his plus-38 tied for first in the league last season.

"It's what you have in here," coach Jon Cooper said, touching his chest. "That's what shows you what (Kucherov) has. That's why guys rise above. Because he's got passion. He's got heart. And you watch so many players that have all the ability and they don't pan out because they don't have that.

"I truly believe that slackers don't rise to the top. The guys that work and want it eventually do."

Kucherov is a sponge, from learning English partly by watching television shows like Shameless to his video sessions breaking down Kane and Ovechkin.

"Kucherov is like all great players. … They have the ability to find a way to produce despite the closeness of checking," Button said. "Everyone knows Kucherov is there, but he's got the skill, he's got the acumen. He's got the intelligence that when they're going at him, he knows how to combat it. That's brilliance."

Said Capitals coach Barry Trotz of Kucherov: "Every time we play the Lightning, I come away from that game going, 'That guy is a top-end player.' He's a dynamic player. He's dangerous. When he's on the ice, something happens."

Kucherov followed his 29-goal season in 2014-15 with 30 this year and a team-high 66 points.

"It's a good number, but I've got a lot of work to do," Kucherov said. "You see all the great players score more goals. I want to be a leader. I have to work hard more. … Goal scoring, you do it every year."

As for Ovechkin's prediction of 50, Kucherov smiled and said, "Hope so."

Kucherov doesn't feel pressure to shoulder a heavy load without Stamkos, who would likely return in the Stanley Cup final, if at all. But the Lightning will lean on Kucherov, who has five of its 11 goals in the first round, one shy of matching a franchise record for a player in a series.

And the hockey world is watching.

"For 82 games, you're kind of in your home-market spotlight," Cooper said. "And when you get to the playoffs, you're in that national spotlight. So people that probably don't get to see our team on a regular basis don't get to see the Johnsons, Kucherovs. But when you're consistently performing well on the biggest stage, naturally guys will eventually make their names."