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Lightning’s Nikita Kucherov, Andrei Vasilevskiy, Erik Cernak to play in Olympics

Kucherov and Vasilevskiy will play for Russia. Cernak will represent Slovakia.
Lightning players Erik Cernak, left, Andrei Vasilevskiy, center, and Nikita Kucherov, right, have been chosen to play for their respective countries in the 2022 Winter Olympics in Beijing.
Lightning players Erik Cernak, left, Andrei Vasilevskiy, center, and Nikita Kucherov, right, have been chosen to play for their respective countries in the 2022 Winter Olympics in Beijing. [ DIRK SHADD | Times ]
Published Oct. 8
Updated Oct. 8

TAMPA — For the past two seasons, the Lightning have grown close while going for back-to-back Stanley Cups. But they’ll turn competitive with each other when wearing different jerseys in February’s Beijing Olympics.

On Friday, forward Nikita Kucherov and goaltender Andrei Vasilevskiy were named to the Russian team for the Games, and defenseman Erik Cernak was named to Slovakia’s team.

They joined previously named Lightning Olympians defenseman Victor Hedman (Sweden) and forward Ondrej Palat (Czech Republic), and Jon Cooper, who will coach Canada.

The NHL, the players association and the International Ice Hockey Federation asked each country to pick three players for its team before the start of the NHL season, which is Tuesday. Each country’s list of 55 players is due in mid-October, with final rosters — three goalies and 22 skaters — unveiled in January.

Vasilevskiy and Kucherov’s previous international experience includes the 2017 world championships. Russia defeated Finland in the bronze-medal game, and Vasilevskiy was voted the top goaltender in the tournament.

But playing on the Olympic stage has a bigger meaning.

“The Olympic Games are the best of the best,” Vasilevskiy said. “It’ll be pretty interesting to see myself against the best players in the world.”

He doesn’t expect his workload to change much during the NHL season with the Olympics on the horizon.

“I will try to do the same stuff I’ve done the past few seasons,” Vasilevskiy said. “We have a season ahead of us that starts (Tuesday). … I don’t think about (the Olympics) now because I’m trying to get one day and game in at a time. My thoughts are about our season.”

Cooper said he can’t wait to see his players on the global stage.

“It just goes to show their talent level and their character, because there’s a combination of why you were asked in that way,” Cooper said. “The players are the focal point of this game, and to be able to shine on the global level does nothing but help the game.”

Cooper coached Canada in the 2017 world championships. In the semifinals, Canada defeated Russia, which included Vasilevskiy, Kucherov and then-Lightning forward Vladislav Namestnikov. It lost in the gold-medal game in a shootout to Sweden, which included Hedman and then-Lightning defenseman Anton Stralman.

“It’s always those bittersweet games,” Cooper said. “You’re trying to win them so bad, then you see the guys on the other side are the guys you go to war with on a daily basis, so it’s always tough. You just have to keep your focus on the task at hand.”

Contact Mari Faiello at mfaiello@tampabay.com. Follow @faiello_mari.

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