TAMPA — The Lightning have been here before, forced to overcome a lengthy absence by Nikita Kucherov, and went on to win the Stanley Cup.
But that doesn’t make it any easier for Tampa Bay, which again must prepare for life without its star forward. Kucherov will miss extended time after sustaining a lower-body injury late in Saturday’s overtime win over the Capitals.
The Lightning are still trying to determine the severity of Kucherov’s injury, including whether he will need surgery.
“We’ll wait (until) we get official word, but he’s definitely going to be (out) a little while,” Lightning coach Jon Cooper said following Monday’s practice at Amalie Arena. " I’m not going to put a timetable on (his return) until we get official word, and the short term he is definitely out.”
Kucherov wasn’t at practice Monday, the team’s first since Saturday’s game in Washington D.C. Veteran Corey Perry filled Kucherov’s role on the first scoring line, with Ondrej Palat occupying his spot on the first power-play unit. Kucherov’s absence also likely will mean more minutes for rookie forwards Taylor Raddysh and Boris Katchouk.
Kucherov missed all of last regular season while recovering from hip surgery. He returned for the playoffs and joined Wayne Gretzky and Mario Lemieux as the only players to record two straight postseasons with 30 or more points.
“In the short term, we’ll probably be in a little bit of an experimental stage, but we went through this for 56 games last year,” Cooper said. “And we had different guys pop in there, whether it was (Steven Stamkos) or (Anthony) Cirelli or now potentially Corey Perry. It’s something that is not ideal, but we’re comfortable with it because we’ve gone through it.”
While chasing a puck in the third period Saturday, Kucherov appeared to be skating awkwardly before Capitals forward Garnet Hathaway made light contact with him. Kucherov then stopped and grabbed his groin area, hunching over in obvious pain. He slowly skated off the ice, then hobbled down the tunnel and didn’t return.
It’s unclear whether the injury is connected to the one Kucherov had last season. He played through a pulled groin suffered in the first game of the 2019-20 playoffs, leading to a hip issue that required surgery in December and forced him to miss the entire 2020-21 regular season.
The Lightning placed Kucherov on long-term injured reserve, which helped the club become cap-compliant without losing pieces from its core group.
“For sure, he’s going to be frustrated,” Killorn said. It’s going to be tough for him. He’s such an important player for this league, and I know for him, every year, especially at his age, I’m sure is very important for him as a player and his legacy. So I’m sure he’s frustrated. ... As a team, it’s something we’ve been through before. I guess that’s one positive. Certain guys are going to have to play a little bit more minutes. Some guys are going to step up.”
Perry, a 36-year-old playing in his 17th NHL season, opened the season on the third line, which the Lightning had to rebuild after losing Yanni Gourde, Blake Coleman and Barclay Goodrow in the offseason. But Perry has seen the importance of the Lightning’s top forward line up close from playing against Tampa Bay in the Stanley Cup final each of the past two postseasons.
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His stall in the Lightning dressing room is between his potential new linemates, Palat and center Brayden Point.
“I’ve talked to them quite a bit, got to know them a little bit,” Perry said, “so it’s helpful.”
Perry won’t try to replace Kucherov. And the chemistry Kucherov and Point developed while becoming one of the league’s most dangerous scoring duos is unparalleled.
“I’ve seen first-hand how they play the last couple years and a little bit the first month here,” Perry said, “so it’s just a matter of winning your battles and giving the puck to Pointer and let him do his thing.”
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