Like pretty much everyone else at Amalie Arena, NHL Network analyst Mike Rupp watched Game 1 of the Stanley Cup final with his eyes on Nikita Kucherov, trying to gauge how much he was playing through an injury.
In 5-on-5 play, Kucherov still could make plays most can’t with the puck on his stick, but didn’t show that rare ability to weave through traffic. He didn’t have that extra burst that he can usually tap into when he needs it.
“I kept telling myself, ‘He’s not right,’ said Rupp, an 11-year veteran who won a Stanley Cup with New Jersey in 2003. “He just doesn’t look like himself. And then it sounds extremely foolish, because he ended up being the first star of the game and had two goals and an assist. It just goes to show how special a player he is, because we all know he’s hurt.”
As the Lightning close in on their second straight Stanley Cup — they lead their final series against the Montreal Canadiens 3-0 heading into Monday’s Game 4 at the Bell Centre — Kucherov leads all players with 32 postseason points.
Since taking a crosscheck that forced him out of Game 6 of the semifinals against the Islanders, Kucherov has five points in four games, including two multipoint contests. Even though he’s far from 100 percent physically, he still might be the best player on the ice.
“A lot is made about superstar players not being around when the biggest games are happening, including the Stanley Cup final,” NBC Sports hockey analyst Keith Jones said. “It’s pretty remarkable that Kucherov has gone through missing an entire regular season (due to hip surgery) and has battled through all the issues that would come with being in game condition to get to this point of the playoffs where he’s taken hacks and whacks every night.
“He’s targeted on a nightly basis and he still finds a way to not just produce but produce at an extremely high rate. It’s been phenomenal to watch.”
Rupp says we are witnesses to something amazing, something unprecedented.
“What he’s doing now, we’ve never seen it,” Rupp said. “Honestly, this should be story 1-A on SportsCenter. I mean it really should. In sports, we’ve never seen this. Even Michael Jordan’s never missed a whole season. If he did, you think he’d lead the playoffs in points?
“I’ve never seen that done in sports, I don’t know if we will see it done again.”
Some have refused to embrace this moment. They claim the Lightning intentionally stashed Kucherov to become cap compliant, even though the NHL investigated everything related to placing Kucherov on long-term injured reserve and found no flaws. It was a gamble that Kucherov would make the first few rounds of the postseason. He returned a month ahead of the six-month timetable.
“It’s comical hearing all the noise after being through that surgery before,” said ESPN analyst and former Lightning forward Ryan Callahan. “He’s ahead of the timetable. It’s not like they held him back.
“I’ve been through that same exact surgery and It almost took me about a year until I really felt comfortable with it and felt 100 percent on that hip. So for him to jump into a playoff game and put together a playoff run like this and the success he’s had, it just shows the tremendous work he put in off the ice just to make sure he was ready for Game 1.”
Kucherov now has back-to-back 30-point postseasons putting him in company only with Hall of Famers Wayne Gretzky and Mario Lemieux. Kucherov’s 1.52 points per game in the playoffs rank sixth all-time in the elite company of such greats as Gretzky, Lemieux, Doug Gilmour and Joe Sakic.
“What’s even more impressive about it is the era he’s doing it in,” Lightning coach Jon Cooper said. “We’re talking about the high-flying ’80s and the scoring (then). It’s remarkable in today’s day and age when goal scoring and getting points is at such a premium. If you can do it over multiple playoffs, it says something special about you and your talents to be able to perform in the biggest moments. That’s what separates the good from the great.”
Cooper said the transformation of the Lightning into a Stanley Cup legacy coincided with the transformation of Kucherov as a player. He has special tools, and Cooper marvels daily about Kucherov’s hockey IQ and vision on the ice.
When the Lightning were swept by Columbus in the first round two years ago after winning the Presidents’ Trophy, Cooper calls Kucherov’s suspension for Game 3 after an illegal hit in a lopsided Game 2 loss a tipping point.
“Kuch has got so much pride, and I know in the end, if he could reverse that, he would,” Cooper said. “But ever since then, talk about somebody that’s learned from experience, it’s been him. When he was doing all the right things you want as a player, our team just gravitated to him. So when he does speak, literally everybody listens on the bench.
“He is the guy orchestrating a lot of the stuff that goes on in the games where you’re getting pucks deep and saying all those things that you don’t often hear come out of skill players’ mouths. An enormous reason we are where we are today is the emergence of the maturity of Nikita Kucherov.”
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