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Lightning's Nikita Kucherov is playing like a league MVP

Nikita Kucherov has played his best hockey in the past month as he tries to carry the injury-ravaged Lightning into the playoffs.
Nikita Kucherov has played his best hockey in the past month as he tries to carry the injury-ravaged Lightning into the playoffs.
Published Mar. 26, 2017

DETROIT — NHL analyst Nick Kypreos went on a Canadian radio show recently and dropped a bombshell that likely stoked fans in Pittsburgh and Edmonton.

Kypreos wondered if Lightning wing Nikita Kucherov is the best player in the world.

That wasn't a slight against the Penguins' Sidney Crosby or the Oilers' Connor McDavid, widely considered the league's top stars. It's a reflection of what Kucherov has done this year, his 38-goal season bringing what had been a lost Lightning season back to life.

Kucherov's average 1.16 points per game trailed only McDavid (1.18) and Crosby (1.21) in the league entering Saturday.

"I think he's a top player in the world, there's no question," Kypreos, who played eight years in the NHL, said Friday in an interview. "We've got different looks now from McDavid, Crosby. But Kucherov is now in that conversation."

Said Toronto coach Mike Babcock: "Kucherov is playing as good as anyone in the league."

Should Kucherov, 23, be in the league MVP conversation?

Crosby owned a league-leading 42 goals, McDavid a league-leading 87 points entering Saturday. Boston's Brad Marchand, San Jose's Brent Burns and Ottawa's Erik Karlsson are in the MVP mix, too.

And all those players will likely be in the playoffs, an advantage for them with voting completed by writers near the end of the regular season.

But if the Lightning makes the postseason, you can make a case for Kucherov, who has carried an injury-gutted roster.

Without captain Steven Stamkos, and lately Tyler Johnson, Kucherov has led a lineup featuring six rookies from last in the Eastern Conference on Feb. 4 to within three points of a wild-card spot. Kucherov has 29 points in his past 16 games, eight more than any other NHL player in that span, with Tampa Bay going 10-5-1 in that stretch. Kucherov scored 17 of the team's 45 goals in those games.

"I think what he's done has even more significance because of the fact (the Lightning) doesn't have any players," said former player Ray Ferraro, an NBCSN analyst.

"There's no Stamkos, no Johnson. So it's easy (for opponents) to focus on one guy. Yet he still finds a way to make himself the centerpiece of pretty much everything that they do."

The clutch factor

Even Crosby says that part of what makes Kucherov special is his prowess in big moments.

"He's just got that knack for scoring big goals," Crosby said. "The way he plays, he's able to kind of turn what looks like a nothing play into a really good chance."

You saw that in the past two postseasons as Kucherov racked up 42 points in 45 career playoff games. This season he has played his best hockey when the Lightning has most needed him.

"I'm just trying to do my best," Kucherov said. "And help my team as much as I can."

There was his four-point night to beat Edmonton (and McDavid) on Feb. 21. He recorded a hat trick six days later in a win over Ottawa. And who can forget Kucherov's daring fake on a goal that sealed a shootout victory over Buffalo on March 3.

Kucherov notched another hat trick in Thursday's win over Boston, then scored the overtime winner Friday against Detroit.

"You can tell he loves the big stage," Kypreos said. "And you can tell he's got ice in his veins. That's what you need to do to rise to the occasion. In many ways, he does remind me of (Chicago's) Patrick Kane. When the chips are down, this guy wants the puck, he wants to be a difference-maker."

The focal point

The turning point for Kucherov's monster scoring stretch came at the end of his longest slump.

Kucherov went a season-long four games without a point Feb. 10-19, falling to 23rd in the league in scoring. In the first three of those games, he had a combined two shots. Kucherov has said he was always taught in Russia to find the open man. But the Lightning encouraged him to be aggressive and engaged.

Kucherov didn't get a point Feb. 19 in Colorado, but he racked up nine shots. Two nights later he had six and scored in that four-point night against the Oilers. He has averaged 4.4 shots in his past 17 games, up from three in his first 50.

"It's just taken off ever since," coach Jon Cooper said.

That Kucherov keeps producing while the Lightning has been primarily a one-line team is telling. Wing Alex Killorn snapped a 16-game goal drought March 18 in a loss to the Capitals, Jonathan Drouin a 13-game goal drought Thursday against the Bruins.

"I know other guys want to step up and help out, but it's been pretty impressive to see (Kucherov)," Stamkos said. "You forget how young 'Kuch' still is. To assume that go-to-guy role and really flourish with that shows how good of a player he is."

It might be a case of too little, too late for Kucherov and the Lightning.

He and the team would need to go on a roll in the final eight games of the regular season to reach the postseason and make the MVP award for him a consideration.

But Kucherov can still win the Rocket Richard Trophy as the league's highest goal scorer. He is four behind Crosby.

"He's one of the elite players in the league," Capitals goalie Braden Holtby said. "You can tell (the Lightning) is in a playoff race right now probably a lot because of him."

Sounds like an MVP candidate to me.

Joe Smith can be reached at joesmith@tampabay.com. Follow @TBTimes_JSmith.