TAMPA — There’s a sense of anticipation when Nikita Kucherov has the puck on his stick that at any moment he’s about to do something special. And not just within the team.
“Not only on our bench,” coach Jon Cooper said, “I think it’s the entire building.”
Such was the case Sunday as Kucherov left his mark on the Lightning’s 3-2 win in Game 3 of the Eastern Conference final.
Kucherov opened the scoring for the Lightning on the power play about midway through the second period. At the time, the Rangers led 2-0, but a passing sequence among Steven Stamkos on the left, Victor Hedman at the point and Kucherov on the right created a hole in New York’s penalty kill.
Kucherov’s shot from the right circle slipped five-hole on goaltender Igor Shesterkin. With the score, Kucherov became the first Lightning player — and the 63rd in NHL history — to reach 50 postseason goals.
The playmaking didn’t stop there as Kucherov assisted on Stamkos’ tying goal on the power play in the third period and Ondrej Palat’s winner with less than 42 seconds remaining in the game.
For Kucherov, it felt vital to step up with his team on the brink of falling into a 3-0 series deficit. In the first two games against the Rangers, he was held to one goal and one assist.
“I think for everybody it’s important to step up and elevate your game,” Kucherov said. “You’re down 2-0, you’re playing on home ice and you want to play better than you did in the first two (games), and I think we, as a group, did that.”
While it was an impactful night for the All-Star, his performance wasn’t without its blemishes. Kucherov fanned on a shot about midway through the third period, forcing a turnover that was picked up by Mika Zibanejad.
Trying to stop the breakaway, Kucherov reached around the Rangers forward with his stick and hit Zibanejad’s face. Officials called a double-minor penalty, noting Kucherov drew blood. The play put the Lightning on the penalty kill with the score tied at 2 and 9:04 remaining.
“I think you look at the first couple of shifts of the game, you knew Kuch was on his game,” Stamkos said. “It was a matter of when he was going to get on the score sheet. A couple of unfortunate high-sticking penalties, but other than that, Kuch ... was our most dynamic player out there.”
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Through 14 playoff games, Kucherov leads the Lightning with 20 points (14 assists). It’s the third consecutive postseason he has reached the 20-point mark (34 in 2020, 32 in 2021). He is the first player to record such a streak since Detroit’s Sergei Fedorov (1995-98).
Kucherov also became the sixth player in league history to record at least three points in 20 career playoff games, joining Wayne Gretzky (59), Mark Messier (30), Jari Kurri (28), Denis Savard (21) and Jaromir Jagr (20).
“He’s won a Hart Trophy, he’s been an electrifying player, he has two Stanley Cup rings, and I think when teams go that far (in the playoffs), each team has those types of players on them, and that’s what Kuch is,” Cooper said. “He’s a unique, special talent. But when you’re the last team standing, there’s a player on each team, or maybe two, that have the game-breaker, and he’s one of them for us.”
Game 1 – Lightning at Rangers, 6-2 loss
Game 2 - Lightning at Rangers, 3-2 loss
Game 3 – Rangers at Lightning, 3-2 win (Rangers lead series 2-1)
Game 4 – Rangers at Lightning, 8 p.m. Tuesday
Game 5 – Lightning at Rangers, 8 p.m. Thursday
Game 6 – Rangers at Lightning, 8 p.m. Saturday *if necessary
Game 7 – Lightning at Rangers, 8 p.m. Tuesday, June 14 *if necessary
Radio: All games 970-AM
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