Kucherov sparks Lightning in Cup Final shaping up to be battle of attrition

EDMONTON -- Nikita Kucherov is a study in contradictions.

On one hand, opponents can’t know with any degree of certainty what the Tampa Bay Lightning assassin is going to do with the puck at any moment. On the other, you’re always just one pan of the camera away from knowing exactly what he’s thinking.

To say he wears his emotions on his sweater would be an understatement, and early in Monday’s game it didn’t look promising for Kucherov. He ate Mattias Janmark’s stick on his second shift. Shortly after, he crashed heavily into the end boards and glided off with a cracked visor that had him doubled over in pain on the bench before briefly retreating to the dressing room.

The fact Kucherov responded to those painful moments by making a couple all-world passes is a big reason why the Lightning were able to even up this Stanley Cup Final. Remember that last year’s Lightning playoff meltdown included a one-game suspension to the Hart Trophy winner for a boarding infraction born out of frustration.

Seems like ancient history now.

“When he was a little younger [the early minutes of Monday’s game] probably would have concerned me. But this year, it has not,” said Lightning head coach Jon Cooper. “The attention he gets is unparalleled and you’re getting that attention for a reason, it’s because you’re pretty darned good. But you can’t let somebody see you sweat and they’re going to make it tough on you and you’ve just got to fight through it.

“The one thing is respect is gained -- it’s earned and it’s gained -- when you fight through stuff. He’s found a way to keep his emotions in check and really grind through players being hard on him.”

What sums up this Lightning team better than that?

They have been the most resilient bunch in the bubble, playing through the entire summer without dropping consecutive games. That last happened to them on March 8 and 10, before the COVID-19 pause.

Tampa had a tepid start to this series against the Dallas Stars and needed some kind of response. It came from Kucherov sparking Tampa’s dormant power play, finding Brayden Point and Ondrej Palat with lovely 5-on-4 passes two minutes apart, early in a 3-2 victory.

Kucherov had the Stars guessing from his spot on the right half wall.

He found Point in the high slot for the opening goal before fooling everyone but Palat on the second. Rather than one-timing a Victor Hedman pass towards the goal, he sent it back cross-ice and left Stars goaltender Anton Khudobin out of position.

“I saw him do that a lot, so I was ready for it,” said Palat. “Great pass.”

The fact it came moments after the playoff scoring leader looked ready to erupt speaks to his level of focus. He’s been part of this Lightning core that reached four conference finals in six years and are trying to cap that dominant stretch by getting their hands on the Stanley Cup at some point in the next week.

“Yeah, tough start I guess,” said Kucherov. “But it’s playoffs, you have to play. It doesn’t matter what happens.”

This series is shaping up as a battle of attrition.

Teams with no history or natural rivalry have been in an ornery mood now that they have only each other standing between themselves and a championship unlike any other in league history.

Players paraded down the tunnels leading to the dressing rooms with ailments throughout Game 2: Kucherov, Erik Cernak and Blake Coleman on the Tampa side, all of whom returned; and Dallas forward Blake Comeau, who did not, after taking a big Hedman hit during the second period.

There will be a premium placed on straddling the right side of the line. And on scoring, judging by how little is happening at 5-on-5 so far.

“Gosh, the intensity of today’s game and this is only Game 2,” said Cooper. “I can’t imagine how this is going to continue moving forward.”

The Stars got two goals back after falling behind 3-0 and had 14 minutes to push for the equalizer. But there was no waver from Tampa, no whiff of panic. The even-strength shot attempts in the third period ended up 22-11 in the Lightning’s favour despite the fact they were playing from ahead.

“You don’t want to sit back on leads,” said defenceman Kevin Shattenkirk. “I’d like to have that second goal back that they scored and help [Andrei Vasilevskiy] out there a little bit. But I thought after that, the guys banded together, we started making more plays, putting pucks in and hemming them in.

“We did a great job to lock it down.”

Dallas basically got nothing done when the Palat-Point-Kucherov line was on the ice.

The fact someone with Kucherov’s game-breaking offensive abilities is continuing to thrive while the game is being played in the alley is a good sign for the Lightning.

“Everybody’s going to look at the wonderful skill plays he makes, but you look at his battle level, you look at when he goes in for 50-50’s or 40-60’s and still comes out with the puck, it’s impressive,” said Cooper. “That’s it for me.

"How hard he’s working and those gritty things that guys get accolades [for] that don’t have his skill level, but when you’ve got the skill he does and he still does that, it’s pretty impressive.”

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