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Pay attention, everyone. Nikita Kucherov just set a new comeback standard

John Romano | No training camp? No games? No problem. Nikita Kucherov gets two goals and an assist in the Lightning’s playoff-opening win.
Tampa Bay Lightning right wing Nikita Kucherov (86) celebrates as he scores a power play goal beating Florida Panthers goaltender Sergei Bobrovsky (72) for his second goal of the game during second period action in game one of the first round of the NHL Stanley Cup Playoffs at the BB&T Center ion Sunday, May 16, 2021 in Sunrise.
Tampa Bay Lightning right wing Nikita Kucherov (86) celebrates as he scores a power play goal beating Florida Panthers goaltender Sergei Bobrovsky (72) for his second goal of the game during second period action in game one of the first round of the NHL Stanley Cup Playoffs at the BB&T Center ion Sunday, May 16, 2021 in Sunrise. [ DIRK SHADD | Times ]
Published May 17, 2021

SUNRISE — If it was a fairy-tale, he would have scored the game winner. It would have been Nikita Kucherov who found the back of the net in the final minutes of Tampa Bay’s 5-4 playoff opener, and he would have skated off the ice with his stick raised the way a hero does.

But this wasn’t a fantasy, and Kucherov isn’t some Prince Charming. And his return to the ice against Florida in Game 1 was more about a competitor’s fierceness than some cartoon version of a happy ending.

So, no, Kucherov was not carried off the ice on the shoulders of his teammates. Instead, he put everyone else on his shoulders and carried them for two periods.

My goodness, what a remarkable return. Nearly eight months after his last game and less than six months after major hip surgery, Kucherov showed up in the NHL postseason on Sunday evening and made you reconsider what a comeback means.

With the Lightning searching for both momentum and offense, Kucherov tied the score with his first power-play goal, then scored another to take the lead in the second period. When the Lightning fell behind in the third period, it was Kucherov who set up Brayden Point with a glorious pass in front of a wide-open net with less than seven minutes remaining.

“I was excited to get back,” Kucherov said. “I waited for this for a long time.”

He wasn’t the only one. Watching Kucherov draw defenders and work his magic made everyone else realize what we had been missing with a season’s worth of Kucherov-less games.

“He (was) like a kid waiting for a candy store to open,” Lightning coach Jon Cooper said. “And he gets there a half-hour early and has to wait outside.

“When we first went through this process way back when, we were like, ‘Kuch isn’t coming back, we have to at least make it to the second round for him to come back.’ Sure enough, he found his way back in Game 1. It takes a lot of mental fortitude to be able to work yourself back when you’re not allowed to play 56 straight straight games. Man, he hasn’t played in 7½ months, that’s tough. To come out and have the game he did tonight? He deserves it because I watched the kid work his butt off to get here.”

It wasn’t just the stamina to play 19:21 in your season debut. It wasn’t just the way the Panthers made sure he knew he was in a playoff game with every hit against the boards. It was the idea that a scorer who relies on timing and touch was so in synch after having zero game action.

“This guy is on the ice all the time working on his craft,” captain Steven Stamkos said. “There’s a reason why he’s one of the beset in the world. There’s a correlation there.”

Kucherov, 27, missed on a breakaway early in the game and it looked like the rust might win, but he got up to speed before anyone knew it was possible.

“It speaks to Kuch’s dedication as a hockey player,” said Point, who scored the winner. “I don’t know that there’s anyone who works on their game harder than Kuch does. To sit out that long and to have a (hip) repair and go through all of that rehab and come out tonight in a very fast and physical game to perform the way he did, it’s incredible.”

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More than any other scorer, Kucherov is the guy who determines the Lightning’s fate in the postseason. Since 2015, Tampa Bay is 25-4 when Kucherov scores a goal in a playoff game. The Lightning are 28-30 when he fails to score.

That’s an enormous weight for a player to carry around, and yet Kucherov played as if he didn’t have a care. He may not have been as quick as you’re used to seeing, but the little fakes and spins and hesitations were as entertaining as ever.

“It’s very impressive to see Kuch come out and deliver like that in first game back,” said defenseman Victor Hedman. “The scary part is he’s only going to get better.”

John Romano can be reached at jromano@tampabay.com. Follow @romano_tbtimes.

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