Tuesday, 4 a.m.
Do you want the Tampa Bay Lightning to make the NHL playoffs this season?
That's easy. Just move the games to Russia.
As quick as you can say “Moscow Ballet,” there is no stopping the Lightning, who won one of their more impressive victories of the season Monday night, stopping the second-place (Atlantic Division) Ottawa Senators, 5-1.
You want impressive? How about Nikita Kucherov, the pride of Maycop, Russia, who spat out goals like from a photo copier. Kucherov scored
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three goals in a span of 17:09 from the same spot with the same shot. Three times, he drilled a one-timer from the right circle (after missing one).
“I've seen him make that last goal so many times,” said Jonathan Drouin, who had three assists. “He likes that shot. He works on it every day in practice.”
If that wasn't enough, how about Andrei Vasilevskiy, fresh in from Tyumen, Russia, who stopped 39 of 40 shots in a 5-1 victory. Vasilevskiy might have had something to prove. He hadn't won since Jan. 24, and it was only his third win since Dec. 31. With Ben Bishop, the all-time leader in wins for the Bolts, traded a day earlier, it was thought of as a statement game for Vasilevskiy, who allowed only a goal on a 5-on-3 power play.
“I wasn't thinking about any trades, just stopping the puck,” Vasilevskiy said.
Together, the duo helped to bring an assault to the Lightning, who have played too many games without an edge this season. Also, Kucherov collected a lot of hats.
“Let’s go back a couple games,” Lightning coach Jon Cooper said. “He had nine shots on goal, didn’t score. He had that mentality of, ‘I want to score.’ It wasn’t pass first, pass first, pass first. Then you get to the game after that, I think he had seven shots and he scored in the game. When the Calgary game came, he had zero shots after two periods. He ended up getting a couple shots at the end, but when he’s got that shooter’s mentality with the gift he has to put the puck in the back of the net, this is what happens.
“Now, what did he have? Seven tonight? This will happen for him. Guys like Kuch, they’re special players. They have high hockey IQ’s. They want to make plays and sometimes it hurts them by making too many plays. When he’s got that shooter’s mentality, these are the type of things that happen.”
Of course, it might not have mattered much if Vasilevskiy didn't play well in the first period.
"I just tried to help our team to get points right now. It is an important stretch for us. I don't think about anything else, just to get some points."
"We didn't play well the first period, but we did a good job defensively...Because we survived the first period, we had a chance to stay in the game and score some important goals.”
Yeah, he was sharp.
"Yes,” Vasilevskiy said. “The first period was rough, and that was a good warmup for me.”
Said Cooper: “It was a little disappointing how we came out. We had a tough three periods against Calgary and for us to come out the way we did was a little surprising for me. I don’t know if the events of today hurt our mindset or what happened, but Vasilevskiy was outstanding. Actually, I think that it gave him confidence for him to be making some of those saves, and it gave our team confidence. When we kind of got our legs under us, especially our power play, we kind of took over a little bit from there. It was Vasy’s night for sure in the first.”
Of course, the challenge for all impact players is to do it again. And again. And again.
When Carolina invades Wednesday night, the team will have another chance.