TAMPA — When the finish line is near and the final prize in sight, you push the pain to the side.
Lightning wing Nikita Kucherov won’t admit it, but he’s playing in the Stanley Cup final with a lot of discomfort.
But that didn’t stop him from scoring twice and getting an assist in the third period as the Lightning won Game 1 against the Canadiens 5-1 on Monday night at Amalie Arena in front of an announced crowd of 15,911.
“Everybody knows how ‘Kuch’ chips in with our team,” coach Jon Cooper said. “But when guys are battling through injuries, it’s kind of an inspiration to others, so it’s uplifting watching what guys fight through, especially at this time of year.
“You have to do that if you want to have any chance to win, and he’s doing that, and clearly he was rewarded for it (Monday).”
The Canadiens got to this point in the postseason by neutralizing their opponents’ top offensive players, and early in Game 1, they were trying to do all they could to stop Kucherov — a slash by defenseman Shea Weber that went uncalled, followed by defenseman Ben Chiarot’s cross-check to the head that wasn’t quite as subtle.
Montreal intended to be physical, and it had Kucherov in its crosshairs.
But Kucherov had the final say.
The Lightning are now three wins away from their second straight Stanley Cup title, and Kucherov’s mettle over the past two postseasons is one of the major reasons why.
Kucherov now has 30 points this postseason, joining Hall of Famers Wayne Gretzky, Mark Messier, Jari Kurri and Mario Lemieux as the only players to register multiple 30-point playoff seasons.
“He’s playing like a beast right now, and he’s so, so good,” Lightning captain Steven Stamkos said.
The five goals allowed by Montreal goalie Carey Price were his most allowed in 38 postseason games dating to a 6-2 loss to the Lightning in Game 2 of the 2015 Eastern Conference semifinals.
The Lightning crowded the front of the Canadiens’ net, focused on taking away Price’s line of sight.
After defenseman Erik Cernak’s first career postseason goal put the Lightning up 1-0 in the first period, forward Yanni Gourde crashed the net, bringing defenseman Jon Merrill with him, forming enough traffic that Price couldn’t see forward Blake Coleman’s shot and Gourde’s deflection for 2-0 lead in the second.
A late second-period goal by Chiarot that deflected off two Lightning players late in the second period sent the Lightning into the intermission up 2-1. Tampa Bay had been in this situation before in the playoffs and on occasion sat back and paid the price. But Monday, they were determined to remain aggressive in the offensive zone.
“That’s the key. We’ve learned from past mistakes where we’ve sat back a little bit,” Stamkos said. “But we just talked, ‘We’ve got a one-goal lead going into the third. … Let’s attack, let’s go, let’s keep the pressure on.’
“And I thought we did a really good job of that. Just a great third period to finish it out.”
Kucherov made something out of nothing with a backhanded fling toward the net from the right wall into traffic. The puck went off Chiarot’s glove and through Lightning forward Ondrej Palat past Price two minutes into the third to make it 3-1.
Kucherov then took the puck off forward Brayden Point’s faceoff win and rifled a wrister from the high slot through Point, who sped toward the goal, and into the net to put the Lightning up 4-1 with 8:35 remaining.
Kucherov then corralled the puck along the near wall, circled back toward the point and found Stamkos for a one-timer at the left circle for a power-play goal with 1:10 left.
“We just stick to our plan and try to play the same way for 60 minutes,” Kucherov said. “And we don’t think about them. We have a system, we have a plan, and we stick to it.”
First Period—1, Tampa Bay, Cernak 1 (Point, Palat), 6:19. Penalties—Goodrow, TB (Cross Checking), 15:21; Chiarot, MTL (Roughing), 19:14.
Second Period—2, Tampa Bay, Gourde 6 (Goodrow, Coleman), 5:47. 3, Montreal, Chiarot 1 (Weber, Kotkaniemi), 17:40. Penalties—None.
Third Period—4, Tampa Bay, Kucherov 6 (Sergachev), 2:00. 5, Tampa Bay, Kucherov 7 (Point), 11:25. 6, Tampa Bay, Stamkos 8 (Kucherov, Point), 18:50 (pp). Penalties—Staal, MTL (Roughing), 6:30; Cernak, TB (Roughing), 6:30; Coleman, TB (Roughing), 13:42; Kotkaniemi, MTL (High Sticking), 15:51; Edmundson, MTL (Roughing), 17:20.
Shots on Goal—Montreal 5-9-5_19. Tampa Bay 7-12-8_27. Power-play opportunities—Montreal 0 of 2; Tampa Bay 1 of 3. Goalies—Montreal, Price 12-6-0 (27 shots-22 saves). Tampa Bay, Vasilevskiy 13-6-0 (19-18). A—15,911 (19,092). T—2:31. Referees—Francis Charron, Dan O’Rourke. Linesmen—Michel Cormier, Jonny Murray.
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