Stanley Cup Playoffs takeaways: Kucherov return sparks Lightning

Sportsnet's Justin Bourne discusses how Nikita Kucherov helped the Tampa Bay Lightning get the mental edge over the Florida Panthers in his return to action following a 5-4 Game 1 victory.

You weren’t expecting a bunch of blowouts were you?

The 2021 Stanley Cup Playoffs got underway this weekend with three of the first four games requiring overtime and the other being a heated back-and-forth one-goal thriller between state rivals.

Yep. It’s definitely the post-season, folks.

The Capitals downed the Bruins 3-2 in OT in the lone game on Saturday, but three series got underway Sunday and each got progressively more entertaining as the day went on.

Sunday’s action concluded with the first playoff game between the Florida Panthers and defending Cup champion Tampa Bay Lightning and oh boy did it ever live up to and exceed the hype.

The main storyline prior to puck drop was the return of Lightning stars Steven Stamkos and Nikita Kucherov. Stamkos had been dealing with a lower-body injury since early April, while Kucherov missed the entire regular season after undergoing off-season hip surgery.

The 2019 Hart Trophy winner and 2020’s playoff points leader hadn’t seen NHL game action since Game 6 of the Stanley Cup Final last year.

“I have to adjust real quick and try to slow down the game as much as I can and use the skill in my head to think the game and make those plays and adjust to the speed as the series goes on,” Kucherov recently said when discussing his season debut. “Hopefully it's not going to take long.”

It didn’t very take long at all for the 27-year-old to remind the hockey world he is just as dangerous as he was the last time we saw him.

Kucherov led all Lightning forwards with 19:21 of ice time, scored two second-period power-play goals and added an assist thanks to a lovely slap pass that set up Brayden Point’s first of two third-period tallies in the Lightning's 5-4 win.

The Lightning have a pick-your-poison man advantage with Kucherov and Stamkos in the lineup. When Kucherov is down low on his off-wing, he’s deadly both shooting and passing. Teams know it, yet they can’t stop it, and all three of the winger’s points Sunday were generated from the same spot on the ice.

Kucherov is now tied with his compatriot Alex Ovechkin for the most playoff goals since the 2013-14 season. If the Lightning power play keeps clicking like it did in Game 1, Kucherov might leapfrog Ovechkin later this week.

Fleury’s heroics deserved better result

Sure, low-scoring games can be boring. Game 1 between the Vegas Golden Knights and Minnesota Wild certainly was not. It was terrific, prototypical playoff hockey highlighted by two outstanding goalie performances.

Peter DeBoer’s decision to start Marc-Andre Fleury in Game 1 was the right call and it became more and more apparent with each 10-bell save Fleury made. The three-time Stanley Cup champion went 9-0-0 to close out the regular season and that momentum had yet to subside heading into Sunday.

Some of the saves Fleury made in Game 1 were jaw dropping.

“It’s disappointing we couldn’t get the win, couldn’t score one goal for him,” Golden Knights captain Mark Stone said of his goalie’s effort following the 1-0 loss. “There were times where I think we cheated a little bit on offence because we were getting a bit frustrated and that’s on us, but Flower did a great job to kind of bail us out in the third period. They had some good chances to end it before they did but I don’t expect anything different. He plays great for us every night.”

He had no chance on the OT winner, though, as a Joel Eriksson Ek shot took a deflection off a sliding Alec Martinez and slid past a helpless Fleury.

As well as Fleury played, he couldn’t outperform Cam Talbot in the opposing net. The Wild netminder stopped all 42 shots he faced and held his team in the game when Vegas peppered him with 20 shots in the first period alone.

Talbot also benefitted from 23 blocked shots from his teammates, which speaks to how Vegas carried the play for the majority of the game. In fact, only five Wild skaters failed to register a blocked shot.

“I think we had quite a few looks,” Stone said. “Our power play had some chances to score. We just got to bear down. I think we were kinda getting jammed up a bit. They get plenty of guys in front of their net to try to block shots. We’ve got to find a way to break them down a bit.”

Stone went on to suggest if the Wild are keen on clogging up shooting, then Vegas “can get our D ripping some more pucks if they want to block shots.”

Game 2 takes place Tuesday and regardless of how many goals are scored we can’t wait.

Jarry’s glove side, Trotz’s system a clear issue for Penguins

The Pittsburgh Penguins are no doubt having flashbacks of a couple seasons ago when Barry Trotz and the New York Islanders swept them.

Tristan Jarry made his second career playoff start Sunday and made 37 saves. Pens coach Mike Sullivan said after his team’s 4-3 OT loss, “Tristan made some big saves throughout the course of the game,” however his glove side was repeatedly exploited by the Isles. All four Islanders goals were scored on Jarry’s left side, three of which were up high, including the dagger from Kyle Palmieri.

Since joining the Islanders, Trotz is 4-0 in series when his team wins Game 1.

Pittsburgh’s other goalie Casey DeSmith is dealing with an upper-body injury and his immediate status for Game 2 is unknown. This means there’s added pressure on Jarry to right the ship.

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