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Nikita Kucherov may be best example of Lightning’s motivation to win three straight

Tampa Bay’s top player isn’t satisfied and continues to get better as the Bolts chase history.
On a team full of stars, Nikita Kucherov, pictured during the opening day of training camp last month at TGH Ice Plex in Brandon,  is the maestro.
On a team full of stars, Nikita Kucherov, pictured during the opening day of training camp last month at TGH Ice Plex in Brandon, is the maestro. [ DIRK SHADD | Times ]
Published Oct. 6

BRANDON — Nikita Kucherov retreats to a far corner of the ice at TGH Ice Plex and spreads about two-dozen pucks on the ice, like a painter splattering black paint on a blank canvas.

This is where the artistry begins. When Kucherov is satisfied with each puck’s placement, he places one on the blade of his stick and takes it for a ride, weaving it meticulously through the others.

His wrists move fast, twisting quickly from side to side, controlling his stick in a way few can. After a while, he challenges himself for more, moving the pucks closer together, then again moving one puck through the others with grace and talent.

Kucherov performs this puck-handling drill often. Fans usually get to watch his stickwork during pregame warmups, and no matter how many times he does it, it never gets old.

The last time you saw Kucherov, he was riding a Sea-Doo with teammate Alex Killorn, navigating through boat traffic during the Lightning’s Stanley Cup boat parade celebration in July. A few days earlier, “Party Kuch” emerged from hibernation, awoken by another title, champagne and Bud Light to deliver one of the most memorable postgame soliloquies Tampa Bay has ever heard.

Kucherov can let loose. His teammates say he’s one of the funniest people in the room. He doesn’t reveal that side often outside of it, only when the Lightning win their last game of the postseason.

But after two straight Stanley Cups, if you’re worried about complacency, you only need to look at Kucherov to know that the Lightning still have the hunger to write another chapter to their growing legacy.

“That’s what you want, you want the trajectory of your career to keep going up, and even when you’re at the top you always want to try to find ways to improve, and that’s ‘Kuch,’” captain Steven Stamkos said. “He’s always working on his craft and you see what he can do on the ice, but he’s a great teammate off the ice.

“In the last couple of years, everyone on the whole team has had to buy into really what we wanted to accomplish, which was win the Stanley Cup. It may not be the way that you want it to be individually, but collectively as a team we can have everyone buy in like they have, starting with a guy like ‘Kuch’. You see him doing the right things, everyone just follows. That’s just the way it goes when your best, most talented player’s doing those things. Usually, it’s a good recipe.”

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On a team full of stars, Kucherov is the maestro. He has remarkable vision on the ice and can do amazing things with the puck on his stick, but when he learned how to be great away from the puck, the Lightning became a championship team.

Nikita Kucherov hoists the Stanley Cup while celebrating with the Lightning in the rain following the championship boat parade in July at Julian B. Lane Riverfront Park in Tampa.
Nikita Kucherov hoists the Stanley Cup while celebrating with the Lightning in the rain following the championship boat parade in July at Julian B. Lane Riverfront Park in Tampa. [ DIRK SHADD | Times ]

He might be the greatest example of how the Lightning evolved from flash and dash to jam and bam.

“We talk about taking what’s given,” Lightning assistant Derek Lalonde said. “Take for example with ‘Kuch’. Early in his career, he wanted to possess the puck the entire time. He wanted to fight through things, which will lead to bad turnovers and bad-timed turnovers. Now, he’s managed his game.

“If there’s a poor gap or if there’s a play to be made, our guys have the freedom to do it. If it’s not there, be predictable. We talked about being predictable all the time. So that’s the reality of the balance, and it’s tough to get there at times, but I think as an organization we appreciate our skill. But we also know that in order to be successful, there’s a predictability within your game.”

Last year’s Lightning team had to earn a playoff spot without Kucherov, who was placed on long-term injured reserve as he rehabbed from offseason hip surgery, a move that helped the Lightning become cap-compliant. When Kucherov returned, he was the best skater on the ice for the second straight postseason, joining Wayne Gretzky and Mario Lemieux as the only players to record two or more consecutive 30-point postseasons.

“When you don’t play for a (whole regular season) and then you go out there and score the most points in the playoffs, it’s just amazing, just incredible,” said goaltender Andrei Vasilevskiy, last season’s Conn Smythe winner. “He’s been a big part of our success the last few years and the last two Cups. I can’t say enough about him — just a great legend.”

Nikita Kucherov was the best skater on the ice for the second straight postseason, joining Wayne Gretzky and Mario Lemieux as the only players to record two or more consecutive 30-point postseasons.
Nikita Kucherov was the best skater on the ice for the second straight postseason, joining Wayne Gretzky and Mario Lemieux as the only players to record two or more consecutive 30-point postseasons. [ LUIS SANTANA | Times ]

New Lightning forward Corey Perry was tasked with trying to stop Kucherov in the past two Cup finals as a member of the Stars and Canadiens, so he knows how tough a task that is. Now, seeing what Kucherov can do up close, he’s even more in awe.

“I laugh every day,” Perry said with a smile. “What he does on the ice, to see it every single day, it’s pretty special. Obviously, he’s a world-class player.”

The Lightning can be the first team in nearly four decades to win three straight Cups.

“I think everybody’s ready and everybody understands what position we are in,” Kucherov said. “We definitely set the bar high, and we’re going to keep playing the same way. It’s got to be disciplined in the room, and you have to stay humble and play the right way. First of all, we want to make the playoffs and see what happens.

“At the end of the day, the Stanley Cup is the goal. We’re going to try to do it again.”

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