TAMPA — The Lightning needed a spark trailing the Jets by two goals halfway through the second period Saturday night. And Nikita Kucherov was more than happy to provide it.
From that point in the game, Kucherov generated four points — two goals and two assists — and Tampa Bay scored five unanswered goals on the way to a 7-4 win at Amalie Arena.
“I thought ‘Kuch’ was a big reason that that game turned around,” coach Jon Cooper said. “He was outstanding in the third (with a goal and an assist), and when the best guys are doing their thing, it bodes well for us.”
The victory gave the Lightning their seventh 100-point season and their first since 2018-19. Five of those 100-point milestones have come since Cooper took over as coach in March 2013.
With the win, the Lightning hold a three-point lead, 100-97, over the Bruins for third place in the Atlantic Division. Boston beat Pittsburgh earlier in the day. Tampa Bay trails Toronto by four points for second place after the Maple Leafs’ overtime win against the Senators.
All three teams have seven games left.
“We were getting chances (against the Jets),” Kucherov said. “It was just a matter of time.
“Sometimes (the pucks) don’t go in, but you have to stay positive, continue to create chances, and at some point, like (Saturday), some lucky bounces are going to go in.”
With the Lightning trailing 4-2 with a little more than six minutes left in the second period, Kucherov’s point burst started with an assist on forward Nick Paul’s goal that made it 4-3.
Kucherov grabbed the puck out of the corner and backhanded a pass behind him to Paul, who launched a shot past goaltender Connor Hellebuyck from the top of the right faceoff circle.
Kucherov scored the tying goal 4:07 later.
“When he’s on his game, he’s the best player in the league, there’s no doubt,” said defenseman Victor Hedman, who also had four points, all assists. “He’s so good at finding guys. … He’s a great player, and he’s unbelievable when he’s feeling the game like he did (Saturday).”
Saturday was Kucherov’s second four-point outing of the season. The other was Oct. 14 at Detroit. It put him at 51 points on the season — in 40 games; he missed 32 in the early part of the season with a lower-body injury — the seventh straight year he has reached 50.
“Kuch, when he’s on his game, playing like he did (Saturday) — and obviously, a big goal last game (Kucherov scored the tying goal Thursday against Anaheim with 12.3 seconds remaining in regulation; the Lightning won in overtime) — it’s about confidence,” said captain Steven Stamkos, who had a goal and an assist.
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“A lot of people forget that Kuch hasn’t played a lot of hockey in the past couple years (because of injuries). And he’s coming back from some pretty significant surgeries, and the body can feel good in stretches and not so good in other stretches. And it’s just something that takes time, and you can tell when he has the puck and he’s taking those first three steps and creating space and sucking guys in and making plays, that’s when he’s at his best.”
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