As most people who have watched any NHL hockey over the years know, the league has a rather bizarre unwritten rule. It’s actually a major part of The Code™ that nobody seems to be able to articulate or fully explain. And that rule is that if you’re more naturally talented and harder working than your peers, you’re going to be subject to all forms of abuse and you’re going to keep your mouth shut.
The NHL allows, nay actually encourages, this kind of stuff, so why would the Dallas Stars not set their sights on Nikita Kucherov? It makes perfect sense to go after a former league MVP, the leading scorer in the playoffs and a guy who had 13 shot attempts in Game 1 of the Stanley Cup final and had nothing but a dash-2 to show for it. So, the Stars did that and for about the first 10 minutes of Game 2, it worked. Kucherov looked unproductive and mistake-prone and his body language suggested that he was getting down on himself.
But Lightning coach Jon Cooper is a coach who has always had great amounts of faith and confidence in his top players. So he watched as Kucherov continued to play through it, then went to work, setting up the Lightning’s first two goals with brilliant passes in their 3-2 win in Game 2. That Kucherov was able to make those plays and be a force in all areas of the ice speaks to his maturation. “When he was a little younger, it probably would have concerned me,” Kucherov said, “this year it has not.”
Cooper was talking about Kucherov, but he could very well have been talking about his entire team. The Lightning have indeed matured, and their ability to play through uncomfortable situations has them three wins away from a Stanley Cup. Particularly impressive was what the Lightning did in the third period. After the Mattias Janmark scored to narrow Tampa’s lead to 3-2, the Lightning locked the game down, not by playing a passive defensive game, but rather by ruling the ice with puck possession and pressure. In short, they played more to their identity, perhaps for the first time since Game 4 of the Eastern Conference final. “They just never put themselves in panic mode,” Cooper said of his team. “Instead of trying to protect the lead, the went out there and actually kind of took it to them. Not in the sense that we were trying to score, but we were completely engaged and we were completely calm on the bench.”
Back to Kucherov, he was something of a human piñata for the first 10 minutes of the game and seemed to be struggling to control the puck. Then he left the ice for a short period after slamming into the boards in a collision with Jamie Oleksiak, but said, “I left because my visor was broken, or something. I just went back in the room to change it and nothing bad was happening.” Hmmm. He said, “or something,” which is strange. And repairs like that one usually get done on the bench.
In any event, Kucherov then seemed to collect himself and not only set up Tampa’s first two goals with great feeds, but did an awful lot more that impressed Cooper. “It’s his battle level,” Cooper responded when asked what impressed him most about Kucherov’s game. “Everybody is going to look at the wonderful skill plays he makes, but if you look at his battle level, you look at when he goes into 50-50s or 40-60s and still comes out with the puck, it’s impressive.”
With the two points in Game 2, Kucherov increased his overall lead in the NHL playoff points race with 28, with 26 of them coming in the real playoff games. Kucherov had a goal and an assist in the three preliminary games and has 26 points in the 18 games he’s played since then. That’s really impressive, too. In fact, he’s now two points ahead of Brad Richards, who set the franchise record in 2004 when he scored 26 points en route to leading the Lightning to their first-ever Stanley Cup and winning the Conn Smythe Trophy. If the Lightning are going to make it a second one in 2020, there’s a pretty good chance Kucherov will easily top 30 real playoff points. He’s already firmly in the Conn Smythe conversation for these playoffs and that might just clinch it for him.