TAMPA — Teams have tried to neutralize Nikita Kucherov this postseason, with limited success.
The Hurricanes have sought to take away space from the Lightning right wing and keep the puck off his stick. It’s not coincidental that Carolina’s only win of this second-round series came with Kucherov in the penalty box. In the previous series, the Panthers aimed to rough Kucherov up, even knocking him out of Game 4 (a 6-2 Tampa Bay victory).
We’ve seen enough of these Stanley Cup playoffs to know that the Lightning are a much better team with Kucherov. Still, when the Game 4 momentum was starting to tilt in favor of Carolina in the second period of Saturday’s 6-4 comeback win at Amalie Arena, Kucherov found another gear.
“To be honest, he might have taken the game over,” Lightning coach Jon Cooper said. “There was a point ... (where) clearly we had lost control of the second period a little bit. And he’d been kind of hit in a tough manner by one of their guys and he just channeled all his energy the right way.
“He was just a beast out there. I thought he might have been the best player on the ice.”
Defenseman Jaccob Slavin’s seeing-eye goal from the end line along the far boards — a shot that went just over Andrei Vasilevskiy’s right shoulder, hit off the crossbar and into the net — had just given Carolina a 4-2 lead with 7:19 left in the second.
On the next 5-on-5 shift, Slavin knocked Kucherov against the far boards and down to the ice. But Kucherov got back to his feet quickly, raced to the slot and pounded a shot into goaltender Petr Mrazek’s chest.
Soon enough, the Lightning had a power-play opportunity. After captain Steven Stamkos missed his shot on net, Kucherov took the carom off the end boards against the far wall, took two strides to the top of the right circle and unloaded a rocket into the back of the net.
After Tyler Johnson’s first goal of the postseason tied the score at 4, the Lightning were on the power play again. Kucherov charged in toward the net from the right circle, but passed across the crease to Stamkos past two diving Carolina players. Stamkos scored the go-ahead goal. After starting 0-for-3, the Lightning power play scored on their next three man-advantages.
“I don’t think they do anything special out there and no adjustments were needed to be done,” Kucherov said of the Lightning power play. “We had to go there and be ready to execute right away and make those plays, and that wasn’t good enough in the first couple.”
Ondrej Palat’s steal in the neutral zone in the third period set up Kucherov’s second goal, which he snapped from well above the circles, intending to go high but was still able to beat Mrazek through the five hole.
“Just trying to catch him off guard and I don’t think any goalie is expecting that shot coming from that far,” Kucherov said.
The Lightning first line of Kucherov, Brayden Point and Palat played a good chunk of their 5-on-5 time in the third period against the Hurricanes’ top scoring line, and Kucherov set the tone on the forecheck down the stretch.
“(Kucherov) is a special player,” Lightning forward Alex Killorn said. “It’s amazing to see what he was doing with the time that he had off all season (recovering from hip surgery) and it seems like he hasn’t lost a step. I love the plays he was making in the third period. He does a lot to get us back in the game. He played a lot of minutes (Saturday) against a good line. And at the end, he’s doing everything defensively the right way and guys are following him for sure, with the way he’s playing.”
With the three-point game, Kucherov (41 goals, 71 assists) also joined an exclusive club of players to log at least 40 goals and 70 assists through their first 100 playoff games — a list that includes Hall of Famers Wayne Gretzky, Jari Kurri, Denis Savard, Mario Lemieux and Peter Forsberg as well as future Hall of Famer Sidney Crosby.
This postseason, Kucherov leads all skaters with 17 points (five goals, 12 assists).
“When Kuch is doing some of the stuff he did (Saturday), he’s borderline unstoppable,” Cooper said. “It was great to see him do what he did because we definitely needed him.”
• • •
Sign up for Lightning Strikes, a weekly newsletter from Bolts beat writer Eduardo A. Encina that brings you closer to the ice.