Kucherov's elite playoff production proving effective against Canadiens

Shawn McKenzie and Chris Johnston talk about the Lightning's win over the Canadiens, and why Nikita Kucherov is going to be difficult for Montreal to shut down.

TAMPA, Fla. -- No matter where you grew up wanting to be a hockey player, you dreamed of one day keeping company like this.

Wayne Gretzky. Mark Messier. Jari Kurri. Mario Lemieux.

Tack Nikita Kucherov’s name on the end and you now have the complete list of players with multiple 30-point performances in the Stanley Cup Playoffs in the entire history of the league. The fact Kucherov did it in consecutive years places him in even more rarefied air as only Gretzky and Lemieux have ever produced more than his 64 playoff points (and counting) over two post-seasons.

What’s more impressive, he’s doing it at something less than 100 per cent. To see him buzz around the ice at Amalie Arena in the opening game of the Stanley Cup Final was to almost suspend belief given that he only managed to play 46 seconds of a game five days earlier after taking a hard cross-check to the ribs.

His stat line on Monday night? Two goals, one assist and a tilted rink whenever he shared the ice with Montreal’s talented Cole Caufield-Nick Suzuki-Tyler Toffoli trio.

When Kucherov claimed not to be injured on the eve of the series, it may have been a case of him willing some good vibes into existence because even head coach Jon Cooper seemed pleasantly surprised with his effectiveness.

“Guys are battling through injuries,” Cooper said after the 5-1 victory. “It's kind of an inspiration to others and so it's uplifting, watching what guys fight through, especially at this time of year. You have to do that if you want to have any chance to win and he’s doing that and clearly he was rewarded for it tonight in how he played and some of the results.”

The Lightning brought a blue wave at Montreal to open this series, casting some doubt on the pillars of this special Habs playoff run. They had killed an incredible 32 straight penalties until Steven Stamkos struck with a late power-play one-timer. And they had effectively neutralized an all-star cast of opponents at 5-on-5 in prior rounds that included Auston Matthews, Mitch Marner, Nikolaj Ehlers, Mark Stone and Max Pacioretty.

With the last line change, Cooper was able to keep Kucherov, Brayden Point and Ondrej Palat largely clear of Phillip Danault’s ruthlessly effective checking line and they produced three even-strength goals.

They were particularly effective at creating havoc in front of Carey Price’s crease and completing precise passes that eluded defenders. Then there was Kucherov’s second goal of the night, where he just straight up beat one of the world’s best goaltenders with a shot you could send to the Louvre after Point won a draw in his direction.

“That's one of the best players in the world shooting that puck and coming off the faceoff circle like that,” Stamkos said. “We’ve seen that plenty of times so it was a huge goal for us, gave us some breathing room.

“He's playing like a beast right now, and he’s so so good.”

He’s lapping the field in the playoff scoring race with 30 points through 18 games, plus the one shift he saw in Game 6 against the New York Islanders last round. And he missed the entire regular season while recovering from hip surgery.

Fortunately, his greatest gift isn’t a physical one.

“It’s his mind,” Islanders coach Barry Trotz said. “He sees things in slow motion.”

While Kucherov’s injury allowed the Lightning to keep most of their 2020 championship team intact because he spent the entire season on long-term injured reserve and gave them significant cap relief, it’s difficult to imagine them returning to this Stanley Cup Final if he didn’t return as the best version of himself while jumping straight back into the playoffs.

Some have levied criticism in Tampa’s direction as a result, but deputy commissioner Bill Daly pointed out during Monday night’s state of the league address that the Lightning were adhering to rules that have been in place since the salary cap was instituted in 2005.

“The system was designed the way it’s designed,” Daly said. “It’s worked very, very well for the time we’ve had it in place. Nothing inappropriate was done here and at the end of the day all the managers know what the rules are. 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.”

There was certainly no guarantee everything would come together so nicely for the Lightning. Kucherov is arguably the front-runner for the Conn Smythe Trophy as playoff MVP, although Point and goaltender Andrei Vasilevskiy have built pretty strong cases as well.

The only trophy he’s really worried about is the one that already bears his name on its silver edges. When he spent January through April grinding through his rehab work, he was dreaming of a night like the one we got here Monday — with a full building on tilt and a monster game to be played.

That’s what kept him going.

“It was tough mentally on not being able to play, but that’s all in the past,” Kucherov said. “I’m just really enjoying the moment and happy to be with the boys and just excited to play in the Final.”

My goodness did it ever show in Game 1.

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