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Nikita Kucherov returns for Lightning’s winner-take-all Game 7

Tampa Bay’s top scorer is in the lineup after exiting Game 6 early with an injury.
Lightning right wing Nikita Kucherov takes to the ice with his team for warmups before Game 7 Friday night against the Islanders.
Lightning right wing Nikita Kucherov takes to the ice with his team for warmups before Game 7 Friday night against the Islanders. [ DIRK SHADD | Times ]
Published Jun. 26
Updated Jun. 26

TAMPA — Two days after hobbling off the ice and disappearing down the tunnel on his first shift, not to be seen for the rest of the night, in the Lightning’s Game 6 loss in New York, Lightning forward Nikita Kucherov returned to the ice for a do-or-die Game 7 at Amalie Arena.

Kucherov is making a seemingly improbable return with the Lightning’s season on the line.

He left Wednesday night after a cross check to his lower back from Islanders defenseman Scott Mayfield and didn’t return. He didn’t participate in Friday’s pregame morning skate. But all the eyes at Amalie Arena were on the Lightning tunnel for pregame warmups, and when Kucherov took the ice, the crowd assembled began a loud “Kuuuuuch” cheer.

The postseason’s leading scorer with 27 points, Kucherov didn’t shoot much during pregame warmups. He skated around the ice, mostly stretching and practicing his stick handling. But before he retreated to the locker room, he rifled off six shots from the right circle that certainly indicated he’ll be able to shoot tonight.

Defenseman Erik Cernak also returned to the Lightning lineup after missing the past two games with an upper-body injury, defenseman Jan Rutta remained in the mix and Luke Schenn was scratched.

Forward Gemel Smith was seemingly Kucherov’s replacement on the roster if he couldn’t play — Smith practiced with fourth liners Pat Maroon and Ross Colton during Friday’s morning skate — but he was also scratched.

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