BRANDON — Nikita Kucherov played through injury the entire 2020 postseason — a pulled groin muscle suffered in the playoff opener gradually turned into a hip injury for which he’d need surgery — but the Lightning forward persevered to score a postseason-record 34 points on the way to lifting the Stanley Cup.
“It is what it is,” Kucherov said Friday. “I feel really good. … better than before.”
After spending the entire regular season recovering from December’s hip surgery, Kucherov is expected to return for the Lightning’s first-round playoff opener Sunday against the Florida Panthers at BB&T Center in Sunrise.
“We’ll see what’s going to happen the next few days if I’m ready,” Kucherov said. “I’m really excited and I’m looking forward to play a game, and hopefully that’s going to be Sunday.”
Since it became clear that Kucherov would miss the entire regular season — placing him on long-term injured reserve allowed the Lightning to become salary-cap-compliant without losing any major pieces from their Cup-winning team — the club’s goal has been to get to the playoffs, when they could get back one of the best players in the game for their title defense.
Kucherov has been practicing with the team for several weeks, gradually working his way into full participation. And with every session, the anticipation has grown. And in recent days, his teammates sense that the old Kucherov is back.
“He makes plays on the power play that no one else really sees, and it’s so hard to play against that when you go on the PK against him,” Lightning forward Yanni Gourde said. “He is so deceptive and it’s so, so hard to read, and he’s making those plays and making the right reads. He’s making the right plays, so it’s fun to watch. It’s fun to have him back on the ice with us.”
Still, the Lightning have shown caution with Kucherov through his recovery, and it’s not going to stop now leading into his return. He’s certainly a special player, and the best players adapt more quickly to the speed and nuances of the game than others. But the reality is that Kucherov hasn’t played in a game since the end of last season, and he will be jumping into the intensity of playoff hockey right from the start.
“I don’t think he’s played a game in eight months, and there’s something to be said for that,” Lightning coach Jon Cooper said. “You know the body’s rested, but he’s still coming off an injury that we weren’t sure we would be getting him back in the first round. So he’s got to get his timing, and there’s going to be parts of the game that will probably frustrate him because he knows in his head he can make a play, but because you haven’t played, you’ve got to catch up to the game.
“Because he has such a great mind for the game, I don’t think it’ll take him too long to get back in,” Cooper added. “But until you get in the trenches and feel somebody other than your teammates hitting you, there is a difference. And so, hopefully getting through those first couple shifts and he knows what to do, where to go and the feeling of opposing teams’ pressure, and he’ll be fine.”
Kucherov said it was tough to be away from the game for so long, but he understood the patience necessary to ensure a full recovery. He said watching games from upstairs allowed him to view the sport from a different perspective, and he’s eager to try out some things he’d like to add to his game. But first, Kucherov is focused on getting the rust off and adapting to the speed and intensity of playoff hockey after being away for so long.
“I mean, I have no choice,” Kucherov said. “I have to adjust real quick and try and slow down the game as much as I can and use my skill and my head to think the game (through) and make those plays and adjust to the speed as the series goes on. Hopefully, it’s not going to take long.”
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