The Lightning’s Nikita Kucherov and Hurricanes’ Sebastian Aho are two of the most dynamic players in the NHL, singular talents with the skill to take over a game or a series at any time.
But with both teams playing tight-checking games, Kucherov and Aho found little space to maneuver or create in the first two games of the second-round series.
That changed in Game 3, as the game opened up and the stars left their marks on the series, for better or worse.
They were involved — literally — from the start, coming together during a first-period scrum in front of the Tampa Bay net. Kucherov got an arm around Aho’s neck, pulling him away from Brayden Point, and the two jawed as they skated into the end boards.
They also made prominent appearances on the penalty sheet, Kucherov for interfering with Brett Pesce in the first period and holding Martin Necas’ stick in overtime, Aho for cross-checking Ondrej Palat in the second.
There were plenty of offensive highlights, too.
Aho picked up a secondary assist on Pesce’s opening goal in the second period, then gave the Hurricanes a 2-0 lead by putting the puck between Andrei Vasilevskiy’s skates on a breakaway, getting behind Kucherov after being sprung on a stretch pass.
Not to be outdone, Kucherov set up both of the Lightning’s power-play goals as they rallied from a two-goal deficit to tie the game before the period was over.
The plays were classic Kucherov. On the first, Victor Hedman kept the puck in the offensive zone and got it to Brayden Point, who left it for Kucherov in the right circle. Kucherov passed across the ice to Steven Stamkos, who returned the pass, and Kucherov set up Point in front of the net.
Later in the period, Kucherov skated with speed into the Carolina zone, put a shot on net, then retrieved his own rebound and one-timed a pass into the slot for Alex Killorn, who whipped a shot past Petr Mrazek.
It was only fitting that the two players figured into the deciding goal, Kucherov’s unnecessary penalty in the offensive zone creating the opportunity for Aho’s game-winning assist and third point of the game, a shot from inside the left circle that went off Jordan Staal into the net.
With stars such as Connor McDavid, Sidney Crosby, Alex Ovechkin and Auston Matthews already eliminated from the playoffs, it was fun to see Aho and Kucherov as involved as they were, even if it wasn’t always for the right reasons.
Grades: A for Aho, B for Kucherov
Here’s how we ranked the rest of the Lightning’s performance in their 3-2 loss in Game 3:
Bursting the dam
After the Lightning and Hurricanes combined for just six goals in the first two games and failed to find the back of the net in the first period, the teams erupted for three goals in a three-minute, 42-second stretch of a four-goal second.
Pesce gave Carolina its first lead of the series and scored the first 5-on-5 goal on Vasilevskiy in 228:20 (dating to Game 5 of the first round) from just above the right circle 5:15 into the period. Less than 2-1/2 minutes later, Aho scored after Jaccob Slavin hit him with a stretch pass from the Hurricanes’ zone.
But Aho quickly went from hero to goat (before later returning to hero), as he was penalized just 21 seconds later for cross-checking Palat in front of the Tampa Bay net. Less than a minute after that, Point scored on the power play to cut Carolina’s lead in half.
It was the most exhilarating four minutes of a series that could use a few more thrills.
Back in business
So, that Lightning power play that seemingly couldn’t get set up in the Hurricanes zone, let alone get a shot on net in the first two games?
After going 1 for 5 and managing a grand total of one shot on goal in the first two games, Tampa Bay scored on two of its three chances with the man advantage in Game 3. With plenty of time to spare.
Point’s goal came 56 seconds after Aho’s penalty, and Killorn scored the tying goal just 26 seconds after Brady Skjei went off for cross-checking Blake Coleman.
Even on the unsuccessful chance that started late in the third period and carried into overtime, Tampa Bay created three quality chances — a backhander from Point and wrist shots from Kucherov and Killorn — before Stamkos fired wide of the net shortly after the penalty expired.
The Lightning had good entries, were crisp with their passes and made smart reads. They finished with seven power-play shots and won four of five faceoffs with the man advantage, significant improvements over the first two games and promising signs as the series moves forward.
Holding their own
The Lightning penalty kill completely shut down the Hurricanes on a first-period power play and nearly escaped a second shorthanded situation before allowing the winning goal in overtime.
After Kucherov was penalized for interfering with Pesce, Dougie Hamilton shot wide of the net and Hedman cleared the puck out of the Tampa Bay zone. Erik Cernak cleared the puck, then ran into Warren Foegele before the Lightning again sent the puck out of the zone.
Blake Coleman forced a turnover in the neutral zone and got the puck deep into the Carolina zone. And by the time Hedman hammered the puck around the boards from behind the Tampa Bay net, sending it to the other end of the ice, time had expired in the penalty.
In overtime, the Lightning were about 20 seconds from killing off Kucherov’s second penalty, as Cernak blocked a Teuvo Teravainen shot and cleared the zone, and Anthony Cirelli had a shorthanded scoring opportunity go off Hamilton, before Staal netted the game-winner on a deflection.
The penalty-killers deserved better for their efforts.
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