Kucherov making a name for himself in playoffs

by Gary Shelton on May 23, 2016 · 0 comments

in general, Tampa Bay Lightning

Kucherov has taken over the NHL post-season./TRAVIS PENDERGRASS

Kucherov has taken over the NHL post-season./TRAVIS PENDERGRASS

Monday, 6 a.m.

Once, you looked at Marty St. Louis the way you look at Nikita Kucherov. He, too, had the magic. He, too, had the touch.

Once, you looked at Steven Stamkos the way you look at Kucherov. He, too, carried the hope of this team. He, too, was the difference-maker.

Once, you looked at Brad Richards this way. And Vinny Lecavalier. And Ruslan Fedotenko.

Once, they, too, carried the mark of greatness. Once, they had the singular gift of putting the puck in the net. Once, they, too, could turn defeat into victory.

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Kucherov making for a name for himself in post-season./TRAVIS PENDERGRASS

Kucherov making a name for himself in post-season./TRAVIS PENDERGRASS

And now, it is Nikita Kucherov's team.

And now, he is the man with the entire team on his stick. He skates, and the opposing team slows down. He shoots, and the net widens. He scores, and all things are possible.

Kooch-er-ov. Say it slowly. From the looks of it, you're going to be saying it for a while.

If there is one reason why the Lightning hasn't missed Steven Stamkos as much as most of us thought, it is Kucherov. If there is one player who can change the scoreboard on any shift, it is Kucherov.

Hey, maybe Stamkos returns after all, and maybe he takes over the scoring load again. And maybe not. With every night, Stamkos looks like yesterday, and Kucherov looks like tomorrow. From the looks of it, Lord Stanley is going to be on a first-name basis with Nikita.

Oh, there were a lot of heroes Sunday night as the Lightning closed to within one victory of returning to the Cup Finals. There was Tyler Johnson, who deflected a puck with his backside for the winning goal. There was Andrei Vasilevskiy, who won his second straight game. There was Jason Garrison, whose shot caromed off of Johnson, and Alex Killorn.

But most of all, there was Kucherov, who scored two more goals. That's 11 goals in 15 games. That's hard to do in a video game. He has a plus-minus of 17.

Now consider this: If you count the last two years, Kucherov has played in 41 playoff games, a half a season. In that time, he has 21 goals and 20 assists.

Reason No. 1 the Lightning fans haven't missed Stamkos./TRAVIS PENDERGRASS

Reason No. 1 the Lightning fans haven't missed Stamkos./TRAVIS PENDERGRASS

Remember. Kucherov is a kid. He's 22 years old, roughly the age of a college senior. He's playing in a foreign country, one where the reputation of Russian players has always been harsh.

And he absolutely owns these playoffs. He had two assists in game four. He had two assists in game three. He had two goals in game five.

“When you're a rising star in this league, as he is, and he's one of those guys for our team -- every team's got one of those guys at some point. It just seems the bigger the moment, the bigger they rise to the occasion,” Lightning coach Jon Cooper said. “He is proving that last year wasn't a fluke, and he is -- he's just a gifted, skilled, determined player. He's really a pleasure to coach.

“The one thing, we talk about his goals and everything about that, but I think he's plus 17 in the playoffs. That's you're not just being responsible and scoring on one end. That means you're being responsible on the other end too. I don't think guys like him get enough credit for how they play the whole ice, and he's a big-time player for us.”

Pretty much, this is how the playoffs have gone for the Lightning: The Red Wings couldn't catch Kucherov. The Islanders couldn't slow him down. The Penguins can't find him.

Most years, the better playoff performers are the same games who were the  better season performers. But not here. Kucherov is claiming stardom for himself. He was in a 10-way tie for 19th in the league in scoring this year with 30 goals. But he entered the playoffs like a lit fuse.

Think about it. Alex Ovechkin is home. Patrick Kane is home. Jamie Benn is home. Sidney Crosby is one game from going home

And Kucherov is still taking over this league. Think about it. Which player in the playoffs do you want instead of him.

He is fast. He has a deadly shot with an amazing release. He has a gift for finding a bit of space. And he has had great timing. Of his 11 goals, 10 of them have come in Lightning victories.

“If anyone was going to score that third goal, I think it would be Kooch,” said Slater Koekkoek.

“Obviously, it was a huge goal by Kucherov to tie it up,” said Jason Garrison.

“He's done that a few times for us this postseason.

Kucherov is a plus-17 in this post-season.

Kucherov is a plus-17 in this post-season.

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