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Lights, cameras, Kucherov! Lightning star takes center stage in Game 1

John Romano | With Brayden Point out of the lineup for Tampa Bay, Kucherov makes a handful of head-turning plays against Florida.
Tampa Bay Lightning center Steven Stamkos (91), top left, celebrates right wing Nikita Kucherov’s (86), top right, third period goal in Game 1 of the second round of the Stanley Cup playoffs Tuesday, May 17, 2022 in Sunrise. The Lightning won 4-1.
Tampa Bay Lightning center Steven Stamkos (91), top left, celebrates right wing Nikita Kucherov’s (86), top right, third period goal in Game 1 of the second round of the Stanley Cup playoffs Tuesday, May 17, 2022 in Sunrise. The Lightning won 4-1. [ DIRK SHADD | Times ]
Published May 18|Updated May 18

SUNRISE — The players were mostly polite, and the crowd was definitely bored.

For a playoff showdown between a pair of neighborhood bullies that was supposed to be fireworks and fisticuffs, Game 1 of the Lightning-Panthers series got off to a largely civilized start Tuesday night.

It was methodical. It was precise. It was like a night at the symphony.

Then Nikita Kucherov showed up.

Well, hey there, maestro!

The most talented player on the ice kick-started the entire second round of the Stanley Cup playoffs and a 4-1 victory by Tampa Bay. In a span of 21 seconds late in the second period, Kucherov made two Did-you-see-that? moves that led to A) a power play, and B) a tying goal.

Just like that, the tone of the evening had changed. The Lightning knew it. They’ve been there before. And soon, the Panthers would realize it, too. The scoreboard said differently, but the game was over.

And the Kucherov magic was back.

“He makes everyone around him better,” Lightning defenseman Ryan McDonagh said. “Obviously, he likes to do it on his own at times, too, and take over in his own way. We’ve seen it time and time again; the guy just loves playing playoff hockey and stepped up for our team when we needed him.”

It’s not as if Kucherov was a slacker in the first-round series against Toronto — he finished with eight points in the seven games — but his impact was largely muted. Too many errant passes, too many missed opportunities, too little sway.

But all that changed in the second period Tuesday night. Handed the puck in a one-on-one situation against MacKenzie Weegar, Kucherov moved so quickly and dipped inside so deftly, the defenseman had no choice but to reach out his stick for a hooking penalty.

Seconds later, Kucherov went right at Aaron Ekblad with the same inside move, then cut to the outside. Ekblad was left standing forlornly at mid-ice while Kucherov navigated toward the goal and then sent a perfect pass to Corey Perry for the easy tap-in past goaltender Sergei Bobrovsky.

“That’s a world-class play, a helluva play. Inside-out on the D-man and side door,” Perry said. “I shake my head sometimes.”

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“I’ve always said this about Kuch: He knows what the guy he is going against is going to do, even before they do,” Lightning coach Jon Cooper said. “He made that look easy.”

Kucherov wasn’t done. After Pierre-Edouard Bellemare put the Lightning ahead with a third-period goal, Kucherov stuck the dagger in on another power play opportunity.

Handling the puck from the blue line, he skated slowed into the faceoff circle, waited for Anthony Cirelli to block Bobrovsky’s vision, and then sent a laser shot between Weegar’s legs for a goal.

In the end, this wasn’t just a series-opening victory. If you are inclined to look at it in a big-picture way, it was a statement by the Lightning.

Think about what they were facing Tuesday night:

They had just come off two potential elimination games against Toronto, they were on the road against the NHL’s No. 1 seed, and they were playing without Brayden Point, the guy who has scored more postseason goals than any skater in the NHL since 2017.

And for the first 35 minutes, it appeared as if they were being outplayed by the Panthers. Florida had a 1-0 lead and a huge advantage in zone time and scoring chances.

But the truth is, the game was being played at a pace that Tampa Bay wanted. In fact, with Point out, it was a pace they needed.

Florida has the league’s most explosive offense, and the Lightning could not afford to get into a fast-paced, tit-for-tat kind of matchup. Instead, they were shooting for methodical and dreary.

They were not perfect but, my goodness, they were disciplined and smart. They weren’t afraid to play from behind so long as they didn’t let the Panthers get too far ahead.

And, when the time was right, Kucherov stepped up with the jolt they needed.

Was it important that Kucherov was the star on a night when Point was out of the lineup? It felt that way, even if Cooper declined to put that kind of pressure on his mercurial star.

“I think it’s unfair to put anything on one player and say, ‘Oh, this guy has to step up or this guy has to step up,’” Cooper said. “It’s a team game. The coaches have to step up. Everybody does.”

Cooper is right about that. The Lightning have won the past two Stanley Cups because their roster is deep, and they have gotten contributions up and down the lineup.

But in every concerto, there is room for a solo.

On Tuesday night, the Lightning let their star take center stage.

John Romano can be reached at jromano@tampabay.com. Follow @romano_tbtimes.

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