Kucherov leads Lightning to the brink of back-to-back Cup titles

Nikita Kucherov led the Tampa Bay Lightning to the edge of a second straight Stanley Cup Championship doing a bit of everything

It’s impossible for Nikita Kucherov to go unnoticed while leading the Tampa Bay Lightning to the brink of a second straight Stanley Cup championship.

The amount of production it produces may still be surprising.

“I didn’t even realize he had 32 points,” coach Jon Cooper said on Saturday.

Although he didn’t play the entire regular season as he recovered from hip surgery, Kucherov leads all playoff scorers with those 32 points on eight goals and 24 assists and has five points in play. three games of the Cup final against the Montreal Canadiens. It’s no coincidence considering Kucherov’s impact that the Lightning won all three. With a victory in Monday’s Game 4, Tampa Bay would sweep the series and hoist the Cup for the second time in 10 months.

“Obviously it helps us win games, the most important thing,” defenseman Ryan McDonagh said of Kucherov’s play. “He can score in different ways, on the power play and 5v5, and I think when he’s in his game he just lets the game come to him and take what is given and is just in the right places. “

Tampa Bay couldn’t be in a better position right now, having never dragged into the final and apparently struggling against the will to win away from Montreal. The Canadiens look like a defeated team, and that’s thanks in large part to Kucherov.

“This line is good, but I think they scored on all four lines so I don’t think it’s a question of a player or a line at the moment,” said coach Dominique Ducharme. . “I’m not saying we’re doing a perfect job on him right now.”

Not even close to perfect.

Kucherov scored another goal and an assist in a 6-3 win in Game 3 on Friday, which left the possibility of a sweep open. Afterwards, he was more eager to talk about the team’s success than his own.

“We have a game plan, don’t we, and everyone is on board and everyone is doing their job,” Kucherov said. “And when everyone’s doing their jobs it makes it easier and we all play a full 60 minutes the right way and that’s what we’re doing right now.”

Kucherov averages 18 minutes per game and plays at an elite level although he hasn’t skated a single game between the 2020 Cup tie-breaker in the Edmonton bubble on September 29 and the first game of the first round on May 16. While there have been complaints about Tampa Bay hiding Kucherov and his $ 9.5 million salary cap in the long-term injury pool all season and activating him for the playoffs when the cap n ‘is not in force, the NHL investigated and found no irregularities to take advantage of this loophole.

“Nothing improper has been done here, and at the end of the day all directors (general) know what the rules are,” Deputy Commissioner Bill Daly said on Monday. “The facts seem to correspond to the situation that allowed Tampa to bring back an important player in the playoffs. I make no apologies for being a sound system and has been a sound system from the start. “

The Lightning’s team system has been strong largely thanks to the lineage of Ondrej Palat, Brayden Point and Kucherov. Point’s 14 goals are the most important in the playoffs, but Kucherov drove the bus for that line, especially this series.

“He can do anything offensively,” said Montreal center Nick Suzuki. “He can make plays, shoot the puck really well and he’s a competitive guy. He really brings it all.”

Bringing it all past the offensive is what Cooper marvels at as he watches and trains Kucherov now. It is not lost on the teammates either.

“We expect a lot from him and he expects a lot from himself, and he’s going to do that most nights,” McDonagh said. “It’s fun to see him really wanting to win at the elite level right now.”

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Follow AP Hockey writer Stephen Whyno on Twitter at https://twitter.com/SWhyno

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