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Lightning’s Nikita Kucherov not letting Stars take him off his game

Dallas is trying to disrupt Kucherov, but unlike in the past, the right wing isn’t letting his frustration show.
The Lightning's Nikita Kucherov and Ryan McDonagh celebrate after a goal during the Eastern Conference final against the New York Islanders.
The Lightning's Nikita Kucherov and Ryan McDonagh celebrate after a goal during the Eastern Conference final against the New York Islanders. [ MARKO DITKUN | Special to the Times ]
Published Sep. 22, 2020
Updated Sep. 22, 2020

The Stars did their scouting report on Nikita Kucherov. Their game plan, like the Islanders' before them, appears to be to stick on him, try to get under his skin.

Kucherov took a big hit from Jamie Benn, a high stick from Mattias Janmark, then crashed into the boards bearing the brunt of Jamie Oleksiak’s 225-pound frame. That was only in the first period of Game 2.

He ended up going to the locker room, he said to replace a broken visor.

“Tough start, I guess,” Kucherov said with something of a chuckle. “But it’s a playoff game, you have to play. It doesn’t matter what happens.”

Related: Lightning send message early in Game 2 of Stanley Cup final

In the second period, Kucherov took two hits within 30 seconds from Corey Perry, then
Jason Dickinson.

That might have worked against Kucherov in the past — he’s let his frustration out before — but it’s not working in these playoffs.

Also in that same first period for the Stanley Cup final series, Kucherov put two shots on net and made two beautiful passes to set up goals.

Coach Jon Cooper said when Kucherov was a little younger, he might have been concerned about him getting frustrated. Not this year.

“The attention he gets is unparalleled,” he said. “You’re getting that attention for a reason. It’s because you’re pretty darn good. But you can’t let them see you sweat.”

Related: Lightning-Stars Game 2 report card: Hitting them where it hurts

When the Islanders tried something similar, the coach said he hoped they would keep doing it because Kucherov responded well.

It’s almost like instead of responding in kind, Kucherov is taking it as a challenge to get back at them by upping his game.

Dallas Stars defenseman Jamie Oleksiak (2) checks Tampa Bay Lightning right wing Nikita Kucherov (86) during third-period action in Game 1 of the Stanley Cup final.
Dallas Stars defenseman Jamie Oleksiak (2) checks Tampa Bay Lightning right wing Nikita Kucherov (86) during third-period action in Game 1 of the Stanley Cup final. [ JASON FRANSON | AP ]

“Last year we saw his frustration level and that was the epitome of that side,” Fox Sports Sun analyst Brian Engblom said. “(Game 2) was the epitome of the other side.”

In last year’s playoffs, Kucherov was suspended for a hit on Columbus' Markus Nutivaara. He tripped the defenseman, then hit him in the head when he tried to get up.

Related: Lightning-Stars bad blood heats up in Game 2

This year, Kucherov’s emotions flared in the Lightning’s Game 3 loss to the Islanders, when he slashed J.G. Pageau as the forward skated in on an empty net. It wasn’t his best moment of the playoffs, but it was a far cry from the year before.

Kucherov is no stranger to smashed sticks. He gets angry with himself for not living up to his own perfectionism. Engblom pointed out that Kucherov wants to go out and score or set up a goal on every shift, which is impossible.

“At times, that has been detrimental for him,” Engblom said. “Sometimes it takes that one cathartic moment to go ‘Okay, something has to give.’ He didn’t have to be told by a coach or anybody after that. He knew it.”

It’s hard to predict what Kucherov will do because he sees a step or two ahead of most players. That’s hard to play against, so opponents try to trip him up mentally as much as anything they can do against him physically.

Related: Lightning power play comes to the rescue in Game 2 vs. Stars

Kucherov’s two assists Monday gave him 28 points in the playoffs, setting a franchise record. He has been productive even if he hasn’t made the same “what just happened” plays he’s dazzled fans with the past two regular seasons.

There’s not as much room for those in the playoffs, where risky plays can become turnovers and goals the other way. Cooper wants to call attention to something else Kucherov is doing more of.

“Everyone is going to look at the wonderful skill plays he makes,” the coach said. “But you look at his battle level, you look at when he goes into 50/50s for 40/60s and still comes out with the puck, and it’s impressive.”

The Lightning wanted to play a more disciplined game this year. They wanted to be less dependent on their skill. Kucherov is doing both of those things.