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How Nikita Kucherov’s injury could affect the Lightning

Tampa Bay hasn’t played without Kucherov for more than two consecutive games since 2016.
Forward Nikita Kucherov (86) suffered a right leg injury Saturday in the Tampa Bay Lightning's 5-2 loss to Washington.
Forward Nikita Kucherov (86) suffered a right leg injury Saturday in the Tampa Bay Lightning's 5-2 loss to Washington. [ DIRK SHADD | Tampa Bay Times ]
Published Dec. 15, 2019
Updated Dec. 16, 2019

TAMPA — The sight of forward Nikita Kucherov trying not to put weight on his right leg, then limping away from the bench struck concern into Lightning fans.

Kucherov blocked a shot by Capitals defenseman John Carlson and didn’t return to Saturday’s game, a 5-2 loss for the Lightning.

Carlson won the hardest shot competition at last season’s All-Star Skills, reaching 102.8 mph. There was no radar gun on Saturday’s shot that hit Kucherov’s right shin, but suffice to say there’s no such thing as a soft slap shot.

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Blocked shots can be stingers that a player shakes off, but a shot like the one by Carlson often takes a player out for a game or two. It also can cause a hairline fracture that forces a player out longer.

Coach Jon Cooper did not have an update on Kucherov’s status after the game, and the team did not practice Sunday.

“Hopefully he’s going to be okay. Obviously, he’s a huge part of our team,” Cooper said of the reigning Hart Trophy winner as the league’s MVP.

If Kucherov is out for any length of time, the Lightning will have to make some changes. They do not have an extra healthy forward on the roster. The team could go back to playing 11 forwards and seven defensemen, which it did with mixed success for 10 games.

Cooper might take that route if the time without Kucherov is short or between Kucherov and Tyler Johnson’s potential return from his own lower-body injury.

The Lightning have no qualms about using their recalls, and they have an opening with Braydon Coburn on injured reserve. Cory Conacher could return to the team yet again. Or perhaps the Lightning could take another look at forward Alex Volkov or a first look at someone such as Alex Barre-Boulet, last season’s AHL rookie of the year.

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The Lightning played an 11-7 lineup in the game that Kucherov missed earlier this season. If they stick with the traditional lineup and Kucherov can’t play, they could move Steven Stamkos from his current line with Alex Killorn and Anthony Cirelli. That line had good chemistry Thursday against the Bruins and some strong play Saturday, particularly early in the game, though Stamkos finished with only one shot on goal against the Caps.

Another option could be moving Mathieu Joseph up, matching his speed with Brayden Point’s speed on a line. Maybe the Lightning give Carter Verhaeghe, who led the AHL in scoring last season, a chance to see what he can do playing with Point.

Whichever tact the Lightning take with the lineup, no one can just slot into Kucherov’s role. He is one of the most skilled players in the NHL and, as Point said Saturday, cannot be replaced.

Even more than Kucherov’s impressive skill is his impact that comes from his vision of the game. On Thursday against Boston, he made two power-play assists, digging the puck out and passing it to a teammate without looking up.

On the first one, as he turned away from the boards, he flung the puck to Stamkos at the hash marks. On the second, he didn’t even turn, instead throwing the puck straight backward to Point.

Kucherov missed one game earlier this season after taking a big hit from St. Louis’ Brayden Schenn. He played every game last season and only missed two the previous one. The last time he missed any extended time was Dec. 14-28, 2016.

Contact Diana C. Nearhos at dnearhos@tampabay.com. Follow @dianacnearhos.