Lightning look complete in win over Panthers

by Gary Shelton on May 17, 2021

in general

Kucherov was impressive in his first game back./CARMEN MANDATO

Monday, 4 a.m.

Nikita Kucherov is back.

Brayden Point never left.

And the Tampa Bay Lightning, at last, might be complete. Finally, they might have the weaponry they needsto make a run at another Stanley Cup.

The Lightning, which ended the season wounded and chasing the Florida Panthers, was reborn Sunday night in a 5-4 victory over the Panthers to open their 2021 playoffs. The Bolts got two goals (and an assist) from Kucherov in the second period, then came from behind on two more by Point in the third period.

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Point scored the winner with 1:14 to play, taking a pass from Ryan McDonagh and breaking away to slip the puck by goaltender Sergei Bobrovsky.

“Not a lot of doubt," captain Steven Stamkos said. "I mean, Pointer on a breakaway in the playoffs has been pretty money. "

For the Lightning, it was a night of getting players back. Kucherov, who had missed the entire season, was the headliner. But Stamkos (one assist) and Victor Hedman (three assists) also returned. For once, the Bolts felt complete and dangerous.

You can imagine how much the return was felt by Kucherov, who had missed the entire season and was not projected to be back until the second round. For an entire season, he was unable to take a hit, to play a game, to score a goal.

“He’s like a kid waiting for a candy store to open," Lightning coach Jon Cooper said, "and he gets there a half an hour early and he has to wait outside. He was just itching to get back in the game."

Kucherov's presence seemed to make other players seem livelier, more energetic.

"His presence -- you can tell it gives the whole team a lot of confidence," Hedman said of Kucherov. "It’s always tough to see how guys are going to react after sitting out that long, but from the start, he had jump. He made some great plays. It says a lot what kind of player Kuch is."

Said Point: "“I think it speaks to Kuch’s dedication as a hockey player. I don’t know if there is anyone that works on their game harder than Kuch does. To sit out that long and go through all that rehab, it’s incredible. He’s a world-class player and we’re happy to have him back.”

Stamkos, too, returned to action, but he steered most of the praise to Kucherov.

“There’s a few things that play into it," Stamkos said. "You can always fall back on your preparation. There is no one more prepared than Kuch. This guy is one the ice all the time, working on his craft. There is a reason why he’s one of the best in the world. Sometimes, when it’s your first game in a while, you don't put huge expectations on yourself. You know it’s going to be tough. When I saw him earlier, he was clam and laughing. Same old Kuch. When you have a player of that caliber, good things happen because he’s that good."

Point said the team was not surprised that Kucherov was so good so fast.

“No, Kuch is world class," Point said. "We’ve seen it so many times before.He played very fast. That's what we expected of Kuch."

 The Bolts trailed 2-1 and 4-3 before coming back. Point's two goals came in the last seven minutes of the game. That could have been the team's experience speaking.

"We talked about composure," Stamkos said. "That was kind of the theme of last year’s run. So many things are going to happen during a series, a  period, a shift that can change momemtum. The game is never over. We’ve learned so many times. You just stick with it. There is no point in getting frustrated or down on each other. We still have some areas to improve on, but a lot of teams are going to hang their hats when they fall behind. We’re comfortable playing in these types of games."

The Lightning and Panthers will battle in Game 2 of their First Round series Tuesday, May 18 in the second of two games at BB&T Center. The puck is scheduled to drop at 8 p.m.

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