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Lightning's Nikita Kucherov learned from playoff frustrations

Nikita Kucherov, left, challenging the Canadiens’ Lars Eller in Game 1 of the Eastern Conference semifinals, says he was motivated by being scratched twice in last year’s playoffs at Montreal.
Nikita Kucherov, left, challenging the Canadiens’ Lars Eller in Game 1 of the Eastern Conference semifinals, says he was motivated by being scratched twice in last year’s playoffs at Montreal.
Published May 3, 2015

MONTREAL — It was Nikita Kucherov's shortest shift of the night Friday.

But it was by far the sweetest.

Kucherov, 21, jumped over the boards two minutes into double overtime, darted into the middle of the Canadiens' zone and quickly etched his name in Lightning playoff lore.

Brian Boyle had kept possession alive battling two Canadiens behind the net. Valtteri Filppula took it from there, stealing the puck from defenseman Greg Pateryn along the boards and sending a spectacular no-look backhand pass into the slot to Kucherov.

"Right in my wheelhouse," said Kucherov, who had had a goal waved off in the first overtime and whose postseason scoreless streak was nearing eight games.

Kucherov took his time, making an inside-out move and changing his angle before ripping a wrist shot by defenseman Tom Gilbert and past league MVP finalist Carey Price. In a seven-second shift, Kucherov became a playoff hero, giving the Lightning a 2-1 win and a 1-0 series lead heading into today's Game 2 of its Eastern Conference semifinal.

"To beat Carey Price, it's got to be one (heck) of a shot to beat him," coach Jon Cooper said. "And that was a big-time shot."

As Kucherov leaped into a pile of celebrating teammates, it was hard not to look back at how far he has come since this time last year, when he was a healthy scratch for Games 3 and 4, watching from the press box as the Lightning's season ended in a first-round sweep by Montreal.

It was then the seeds were planted for Kucherov's breakout season. His 29 goals were second to Steven Stamkos on the team, his plus-38 tied for first in the NHL. "When I was scratched, I saw from the stands how much time I have and how hard I have to compete to be in the lineup," Kucherov said. "This year, I realize that I have to work more hard than last year to be in the lineup. Scratched gives me more motivation to prove the coaching staff I can play here."

Moments like Friday's seemed predestined for Kucherov after his dazzling NHL debut Nov. 25, 2013, when he scored on the first shot of his first shift, a one-timer from the left circle beating the Rangers' Henrik Lundqvist.

Kucherov, a Moscow native who grew up with a poster of the Red Wings' "Russian Five" on his wall, always has had sizzling skills and hockey sense. Though Kucherov was a second-round draft pick in 2011, Lightning director of amateur scouting Al Murray said he was a better player than Russian Nail Yakupov, who went No. 1 in 2012 to the Oilers.

Kucherov scored nine goals in 52 games last season, but he wasn't a finished product. "Last year, every time he was on the ice it was only about trying to score," Cooper said.

Learning he had to round out his game, Kucherov put in work over the summer to get stronger. He learned more English by watching TV shows such as Shameless. From Day 1 in training camp, when he was battling for a spot in the lineup, Kucherov was determined to show he could play a two-way game. His plus-7 is best in this postseason.

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"He's become quite an all-around player now," wing Ryan Callahan said. "It's impressive to see that transformation."