After missing most of the first half of the regular season, star forward Nikita Kucherov returned to the Lightning lineup for Thursday’s game against the Flames at Amalie Arena.
Playing for the first time in 33 games, Kucherov had two third-period assists to help Tampa Bay pull away for a 4-1 win. He had eight shot attempts, including three shots on goal, in 17 minutes, 29 seconds of ice time.
“This has been building,” head coach Jon Cooper said. “We’ve been kind of targeting this game as the game (Kucherov) is coming back. So I guess the really good thing is there’s no step back. It was building on the road, we thought potentially there was a chance to maybe play against Columbus, but it didn’t work out that way.
“Guys are excited, but, again, there’s uncertainty with our lineup. But I guess Kuch is one of the certainties, so that’s good.”
The Lightning on Wednesday placed center Riley Nash on waivers, seemingly in anticipation of Kucherov’s return. Nash was claimed by the Coyotes.
Kucherov, the Lightning’s most dynamic offensive player and orchestrator of the team’s power play, has been practicing with the team for several days and went on the recent road trip to New York and Columbus.
He was a full participant at Tuesday’s morning skate, reuniting with linemates Brayden Point and Ondrej Palat and taking his spot along the half wall on the top power-play unit. Kucherov also led the team’s post-skate stretch, another indication he would be returning to the lineup.
“We’re super-excited about it, and you can tell the buzz on the ice (Thursday) was huge,” defenseman Victor Hedman said. “So we’re very happy to see him out there doing what he does well. He brings a different element to our game, and it’s gonna make us a lot better.”
The Lightning were 20-7-5 without Kucherov — 15 of those games also were without Point — but entered Thursday’s game ranked just 14th on the power play (20.2 percent) even after scoring three goals with the man-advantage Tuesday against the Blue Jackets.
“He’s one of the best players in the NHL,” forward Alex Killorn said after the morning skate. “I think even watching him practice out there, even just on the power play, it’s kind of special watching him back and how he can find players, how hard he works when he hasn’t been playing so that he can be ready when his time is to come. He’s a special player.”
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