We so often expect him to be superhuman that we forget Nikita Kucherov is subject to the same ills, ailments and maladies as the rest of us.
So when the star forward didn’t look quite like himself in the Lightning’s opening-round series against the Maple Leafs, we were quick to criticize.
Though he quietly led the Lightning with eight points (including two goals) in the series, Kucherov seemed to lack the fire we’re used to seeing from the NHL’s points leader the past two postseasons.
TNT studio analyst and one-time Lightning coach Rick Tocchet might have had the explanation: Kucherov was battling the flu, Tocchet said during Tuesday’s pregame show.
Seemingly feeling better and with injured Brayden Point out of the lineup, Kucherov stepped up his game in every way in the second-round opener against the Panthers.
He was active in all three zones, back-checking, accelerating though the center of the ice and making plays in the offensive end. He also showed up all over the scoresheet, with a goal, an assist, two shots on goal and three hits.
Kucherov hustled back into the Tampa Bay zone to steal the puck from Sam Reinhart in the second period, breaking up a Florida rush. Then, with just over four minutes remaining in the period, he drew a hooking penalty from MacKenzie Weegar, who got his stick into Kucherov’s midsection as he accelerated past him.
Kucherov saw that the Lightning made the most of the man-advantage opportunity, turning defenseman Aaron Ekblad inside-out, then freezing goaltender Sergei Bobrovsky before setting up Corey Perry for the tying goal into a wide-open net with a beautiful circle-to-circle pass.
Kucherov later orchestrated another power-play goal, skating methodically from the side boards into the right circle before wristing a shot past Bobrovsky with Anthony Cirelli setting a moving screen in front to give Tampa Bay a 3-1 lead with just over four minutes remaining in the game.
Safe to say, we all feel better now.
Here is how we graded the rest of the Lightning’s performance in their 4-1 win in Game 1:
Aside from a Game 4 win in which it accounted for three goals, the Lightning’s “School Bus Line” seldom left the garage in the opening-round series.
But unlike the Maple Leafs, the Panthers roll four forward lines, which gave Tampa Bay’s fourth-liners more opportunities to get on the ice.
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Though Pat Maroon, Corey Perry and Pierre-Edouard Bellemare weren’t always out there at the same time (Perry moved to the third line, with Nick Paul jumping up to the second in place of Point), they found ways to make an impact as Tampa Bay mixed and matched its 11 forwards.
Perry replaced Point in the bumper position on the power play and tied the score at 1 after the exquisite assist from Kucherov.
All three players contributed to Bellemare’s goal, which gave the Lightning a 2-1 lead less than four minutes into the third period. Bellemare won a faceoff in the offensive zone. Maroon kept the puck alive for Perry, who got off the first shot, then went to the net, taking two players with him. Bellemare skated into open ice in the slot, found the rebound and lifted a pinpoint shot up over Bobrovsky’s shoulder.
The trio finished with two goals, two assists, eight hits and three blocked shots.
Good call, Coach
Jon Cooper had a decision to make with Point unable to go: replace him with another forward, or play an extra defenseman.
Cooper opted to go with an 11-forward, seven-defensemen lineup, inserting blueliner Jan Rutta back into the rotation and scratching Riley Nash, who likely would have been the 12th forward.
What might at first have seemed disadvantageous against a Florida team with great forward depth became fortuitous when Tampa Bay found itself down to five defensemen.
Erik Cernak was lost for the game after being hit in the back with a Brandon Montour blast from the left circle with just over six minutes remaining in the second period. The Lightning also lost Cal Foote for a long stretch of the second period after he blocked a hard Montour shot earlier in the game.
You couldn’t ask any more of Victor Hedman (26:48), Ryan McDonagh (22:22), Mikhail Sergachev (22:53), Rutta (11:32) and Zach Bogosian (10:22).
Giving themselves a chance
The Lightning did a nice job for much of the game slowing the Panthers through the neutral zone and preventing them from playing at their preferred pace. Two early penalties put Florida further on its heels.
Though Tampa Bay failed to convert on its first two opportunities with the man-advantage, it killed two penalties of its own in the second period to keep its deficit to a single goal until its power play took over in the third.
A Panthers power play that went 0-for-18 in their first-round series against the Capitals continued to look tentative, overpassing and eschewing shot opportunities. When they did shoot, the Lightning usually were in the way.
Alex Killorn blocked a shot after McDonagh was penalized for holding in the first minute of the second period, and Cirelli, Sergachev and Cernak sacrificed their bodies with Paul in the box for hooking 11 minutes later.
That’s how you win in the playoffs.
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