Kucherov leads Lightning to verge of back-to-back Cup titles

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Tampa Bay Lightning right wing Nikita Kucherov (86) reaches for the loose puck during the second period in Game 2 of the NHL hockey Stanley Cup finals against the Montreal Canadiens, Wednesday, June 30, 2021, in Tampa, Fla. (AP Photo/Gerry Broome)

It's impossible for Nikita Kucherov to fly under the radar while leading the Tampa Bay Lightning to the verge of a second consecutive Stanley Cup championship.

Just how much he's producing can still come as a surprise.

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

Despite not playing all regular season while rehabbing from hip surgery, Kucherov leads all scorers in the playoffs with those 32 points on eight goals and 24 assists and has five points through three games of the Cup final against the Montreal Canadiens. It's no coincidence given 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 a second time in 10 months.

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

Tampa Bay could not be in a better spot right now, having never trailed in the final and having seemingly wrestled the will to win away from Montreal. The Canadiens look like a defeated team, and much of that is thanks to Kucherov.

“That line is good, but I think they have been scoring on all four lines, so I don’t think it’s a matter of one player or one line right now," coach Dominique Ducharme said. “I’m not saying that we’re doing a perfect job right now on him.”

Not even close to perfect.

Kucherov had another goal and assist in a 6-3 win in Game 3 Friday that kept open the possibility of a sweep. Afterward, he was more eager to talk about the team's success than his own.

“We have game plan, right, and everybody’s buying in and everybody’s doing their job,” Kucherov said. “And when everybody’s doing their job, 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 is averaging 18 minutes a game and playing at an elite level despite not skating a single game between the 2020 Cup clincher in the Edmonton bubble Sept. 29 and the first game of the first round May 16. While there have been complaints about Tampa Bay stashing Kucherov and his $9.5 million salary cap hit on long-term injured reserve all season and activating him for the playoffs when the cap is not in effect, the NHL investigated and found no impropriety with taking advantage of that loophole.

“Nothing inappropriate was done here, and at the end of the day all the (general) managers know what the rules are,” Deputy Commissioner Bill Daly said Monday. “The facts seem to align with the situation that allowed Tampa to bring back a significant player in the playoffs. I’m not apologizing for what is a sound system and has been a sound system from the start.”

The Lightning's team system has been sound thanks in large part to the line of Ondrej Palat, Brayden Point and Kucherov. Point's 14 goals are the most in the playoffs, but Kucherov has driven the bus for that line, especially this series.

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

Bringing it all beyond the offense is what Cooper marvels at when watching and coaching Kucherov now. That is not lost on teammates, either.

“We expect a lot out of him and he expects a lot out of himself, and he’s going to bring it most nights,” McDonagh said. "It’s fun to see him really wanting to win on an elite level right now.”


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


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