TAMPA — The Lightning won 36 games in their 56-game regular season without Nikita Kucherov, and the whole way through, they were motivated by the fact that if they were fortunate enough to clinch a playoff spot, they’d be rewarded with the return of their best player for a postseason run.
Now, with Kucherov’s status still unclear following his Game 6 exit on his first shift of the Lightning’s 3-2 overtime loss to the Islanders on Wednesday night, the Lightning could face the defining moment of their postseason — a do-or-die Game 7 at Amalie Arena Friday night — without Kucherov.
Lightning coach Jon Cooper did not have an update on Kucherov’s status after Friday’s morning skate but did not rule him out.
“Not sure,” Cooper said. “I wish I could give you guys lineup answers and I can’t, so let’s wait until tonight.”
Kucherov leads all skaters with 27 points this postseason, and his 22 assists also lead the league in the playoffs, with 13 of those assists coming on the power play.
“I think everyone knows how important Kuch is to our team,” Lightning forward Barclay Goodrow said. “You see the numbers he’s putting up in these playoffs. You see what he does on the ice, so obviously if he’s not able to play, it’s going to take everyone to give a little bit more to try to fill that void. We’re hoping he plays, but if he doesn’t, it’s going to take a lot more from everyone in the lineup to try to replace a guy like that.”
The Lightning have certainly been a more dangerous team this postseason with Kucherov, particularly on the power play, where they have scored at a 37.7 success rate during the playoffs. He’s been the perfect setup man along the right circle on the power play, and just his presence on the ice opens up more opportunities for Brayden Point and Steven Stamkos.
Point has had a remarkable postseason, scoring a league-high 14 goals in the playoffs, and enters Game 7 riding a nine-game goal streak that is one shy of the NHL postseason record. The synergy he’s formed with Kucherov has been nothing short of incredible. They seem to read each other so well, and the fact that Kucherov has assisted on 10 of Point’s 14 playoff goals is a testament to that.
Anthony Cirelli moved up from his spot at the second-line center to fill in for Kucherov on the Lightning’s second forward line and played exceptionally well. He scored the Lightning’s second goal of the game to give Tampa Bay a 2-0 lead and in the 8:52 in which he teamed with Point and Ondrej Palat in 5-on-5, that line dominated in shot attempt differential.
With Cirelli on the top line, center Yanni Gourde played double shifts with the second and third lines, logging 19:24 of ice time — second-most among forwards — in Game 6.
Palat filled in for Kucherov on the power play, and he has a lot of familiarity with that group because he spent the entire regular season on the first team unit before moving down to the second-team unit when Kucherov returned. Palat had seven goals and 13 assists on the power play in the regular season, so he was certainly productive there.
If Kucherov can’t play, Cooper said he’d like to use a 12th forward instead of double shifting one in a 11-forward/seven-defenseman format. The Lightning used an 11/7 lineup in their first-round series with Florida, but Cooper indicated he’d prefer to avoid it against a physical Islanders team.
Forward Mathieu Joseph, Mitchell Stephens and Gemel Smith all participated in Friday’s morning skate, and Smith worked with fourth liners Ross Colton and Pat Maroon on the side toward the end of Friday’s session, so he could be an option as the 12th forward if Kucherov can’t play.
The Lightning are also uncertain whether defenseman Erik Cernak will play. He missed the past two games with an upper-body injury, but was a full participant in Friday’s morning skate. Cooper said he’d have to “wait and see” on Cernak’s availability.
“I guess if that scenario came about, we’ve got to count on the guy we’d bring into the lineup,” Cooper said of replacing Kucherov in the lineup. “But other than that, every team in the league will tell you, you lose players, you’ve gained players, your lineup changes all the time. Is it ideal when you’re playing in the final four when you’re playing against the best teams in the league not to have your full lineup? No, but it also opens doors for guys.
“You look at (Wednesday nigh), the game that Cirelli played, it was phenomenal. So you just plug guys in. This isn’t new for us, and you move on. And if you’re fortunate enough to win the game, it makes for one hell of a story.”
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