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Lightning open up game with third-period flurry in Nikita Kucherov’s return

Playing for the first time in 33 games, the star forward sets up two third-period goals in a win over Calgary.
Lightning right wing Nikita Kucherov (86) takes a shot on goal against Calgary Flames goaltender Dan Vladar (80) during the first period of Thursday's game at Amalie Arena.
Lightning right wing Nikita Kucherov (86) takes a shot on goal against Calgary Flames goaltender Dan Vladar (80) during the first period of Thursday's game at Amalie Arena. [ DIRK SHADD | Times ]
Published Jan. 7
Updated Jan. 7

TAMPA — Nikita Kucherov’s wait to return to the ice was nearly three months long, and he couldn’t wait to find the back of the net in his first game back from in jury Thursday against the Flames.

But his shots sailed high and wide. One hit the post. He skated back to the Lightning bench after his shifts, frustrated.

Still, the Lightning were a different team with Kucherov in the lineup against one of the league’s top defensive squads, and it seemed only a matter of time before the star forward would truly make an impact.

Kucherov had Calgary goaltender Dan Vladar guessing all night, but Vladar was superb for two periods until Kucherov got the better of him in a 4-1 win at Amalie Arena.

Kucherov made two sensational passes to set up goals in the third period, opening up a one-goal game that saw the Lightning (23-8-5) play well at both ends but struggle to find the back of the net.

“For him to miss as much time and come in to play a big, fast team like we just did and do the things he did, he’s elite,” coach Jon Cooper said. “He’s probably just only going to get better here when he gets his legs under him.”

With the Lightning clinging to a one-goal lead in the third, Kucherov’s on-ice poker play forced Vladar to gamble. Kucherov had rocketed several one-timers from the right circle in the game, and when defenseman Ryan McDonagh’s pass met his stick, Kucherov reared up for another, drawing Vladar to the near post.

But instead of rifling a shot on net, Kucherov tapped a cross-crease pass to center Brayden Point, who was emerging from behind the net at the far post.

Point’s shot into a wide-open net gave the Lightning a 2-0 lead less than three minutes into the third period. Point’s fifth goal in six games since returning from a shoulder injury was the first of three straight for Tampa Bay.

“(Point) was always in front of me,” Kucherov said. “I was sitting in a corner, and I saw the whole 10 guys in front of me. So I saw what everybody was doing, and I saw (Point) going behind the net before the pass was made to me.”

Kucherov added a second assist just over seven minutes later, taking the puck behind the net, then doubling back to free himself from 6-foot-6 Calgary defenseman Nikita Zadorov before finding forward Ondrej Palat open in front of the net. Palat beat Vladar stick side to put the Lightning up 3-0, giving him 10 points in his last seven games.

Forward Corey Perry said he shook his head and laughed when he watched some of the plays Kucherov made in the game.

“Sometimes you wonder how he sees the ice,” Perry said. “The skill level, the hockey IQ, it’s off the charts, and you just can’t teach that. … He didn’t miss a beat, and he’s just going to get that much better as he gets some more games under his belt.”

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Fourteen seconds after Palat’s goal, forward Alex Killorn, who hit the post earlier, scored on a feed from Steven Stamkos off the rush.

The Flames entered the game second in the league in goals-against average (2.35 a game), and Vladar stopped 26 of 27 shots through two periods before the Lightning got to him in the third.

The Lightning outshot the Flames 27-13 in the first two periods and had 52 of their 65 shot attempts in the first 40 minutes, including three that hit the post.

Perry opened the scoring 12 minutes into the second period with his 10th goal of the season. All the goals have come in the past 19 games.

Lightning goaltender Andrei Vasilevskiy made 26 saves, holding the Flames scoreless until Dillon Dube’s goal with just over four minutes remaining for his league-best 19th win. Vasilevskiy has won nine of his last 10 starts and 11 of 13.

“I thought we played really well,” Perry said. “We limited their chances in the first couple periods. We were on top of them, we were hard, we were physical, we weren’t turning the puck over, no odd-man rushes against. It’s a good recipe, and then we found some ways to get a couple goals early in the third and put it away.”

Contact Eduardo A. Encina at eencina@tampabay.com. Follow @EddieintheYard.

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