TAMPA — A funny thing happened on Nikita Kucherov’s way to rescuing the Lightning:
They got worse.
It hasn’t been a dramatic, or calamitous, fall. And I certainly wouldn’t say the fault rests entirely with Kucherov. But you typically expect a positive nudge when your best player returns to the lineup, and we have not seen that often enough with Kucherov.
Tampa Bay’s season can be split almost perfectly in half between games with Kucherov and games without. In 35 games without their star forward, the Lightning have racked up 71.4 percent of their possible points in the standings. In 34 games with Kucherov, the Lightning are at 63.2 percent.
While they were a little wobbly during the two-plus months that Kucherov missed early in the season, the Lightning were at least in first place in the Atlantic Division and challenging for the No. 1 seed on the morning of Jan. 6 when he returned. Today, they are in fourth and seeded No. 7.
So, again, is it fair to point a finger at Kucherov as the source of Tampa Bay’s struggles? Of course not. There are plenty of moving parts on a hockey team, and Kucherov has had moments of sheer brilliance.
But is it fair to suggest Kucherov has not performed to expectations? Oh, heck yeah.
In this era of advanced metrics, a player’s plus/minus ratio is no longer considered the most accurate barometer of performance, but it’s hard not to notice Kucherov’s minus-10. In basic terms, that’s suggesting the Lightning are getting outscored more often than not when Kucherov is on the ice.
Linemate Brayden Point is the only other player on the team even close to a minus that high (minus-6), but that also seems to be tied to Kucherov. Point was plus-2 when Kucherov returned to the lineup in January and has since been minus-8.
(If you remove all special teams from the equation, Kucherov is still minus-7 on even-strength goal differential. Compare that to almost plus-30 in both of Kucherov’s last two regular seasons.)
Beyond the numbers, Kucherov has often seemed frustrated and out of sync on the ice. He has always been prone to turnovers, but too many seem to have come at costly moments. There have been too many odd-man rushes, too many neutral-zone flubs.
Consequently, it feels as if the Lightning have been unable to build any kind of meaningful momentum beyond a handful of games.
Since winning the outdoor game in Nashville at the end of February, the Lightning have gone 9-8-1, despite bringing in reinforcements at the trade deadline.
You could make the argument that the fourth line of Pierre-Edouard Bellemare, Pat Maroon and Corey Perry has exceeded expectations. The new third line of Ross Colton, Nick Paul and Brandon Hagel has also shown plenty of energy and promise.
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But the Lightning need their stars to start playing like stars. And that starts with Kucherov.
The good news is this could be easily solved.
No one would dispute that Kucherov, 28, is still an elite talent. As we saw in last year’s postseason, his playmaking abilities can lift the Lightning to extraordinary heights in a flash.
If this is merely a case of motivation being hard to come by during a particularly brutal stretch of the regular season, you could easily imagine Kucherov flipping the switch come playoff time. Heck, he could do it tonight against the Capitals.
During Monday night’s 6-2 loss to the Maple Leafs, you were reminded of the possibilities. Toronto’s Auston Matthews is a goal- scoring savant, and he took control when his team needed him most.
After Kucherov tied the score in the first period with his 13th goal, Matthews put the Leafs ahead early in the second. When Jan Rutta scored an unlikely tying goal four minutes later, Matthews again put Toronto on top with his 53rd goal. He later completed a hat trick and put the game out of reach in the third period.
It was the kind of clutch performance we have seen from Kucherov in the past. Honestly, it was the kind of performance Kucherov is still capable of providing.
The Lightning are just waiting for that version of Nikita Kucherov to show up.
Contact John Romano at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow @Romano_TBTimes.
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