TAMPA – For two consecutive seasons, Nikita Kucherov has gone down for months and been unavailable and when he came back, he provided the same wizardry with the puck that he would have if he had been skating through those injured periods.
Kucherov delivered two stylized assists in the third period as Tampa Bay defeated Calgary, 4-1, on Thursday night in Amalie Arena.
“Sometimes you wonder how he sees the ice, the skill level and hockey IQ,” said Corey Perry, who connected on his tenth goal of the season. “You can’t teach that.”
Kucherov, who said he had been skating and working out with his teammates, helped Tampa Bay break open what was a hard-fought game that saw a myriad of penalties.
He threw a pin-point pass to Brayden Point from the right side of the ice to the left crease and Point deposited it past Calgary backup goalie Dan Vladar at 2:52 in the third period.
“He was always in front of me and I was sitting in the corner and I saw him go behind the net when the pass was made to me,” said Kucherov, who had missed the last 32 games,
Coach Jon Cooper used the adjective, “elite” several times in his description of his star winger. Once he got in a groove, Kucherov’s precision showed no hints of rust or really even being away from his teammates.
“I thought we had momentum the whole time,” noted Cooper. “The score didn’t dictate the way we were playing. The goaltender (Vladar) played well and he got helped by a few posts. I thought our guys were playing hard and they got rewarded for sticking with it for three periods.”
Kucherov once again had a stylized assist at 10:10 of the third period. Ondrej Palat had dug the puck out from the board on the right side and he sent it down the wall to Kucherov. He skated toward a much bigger defender in 6-6, 235-pound Nikita Zadarov and then doubled back and fed Palat, who set up at the net and scored his 13th goal of the season.
“He will be looked at as a skill player, but he is a gamer,” commented Cooper. “A perfect example is going behind the net with Zadarov and he’s a big strong man and he used his smarts and knew where to go how not to get hit and to make a play at the same time.”
Alex Killorn slammed the door only 14 seconds after Palat’s marker as he and Steven Stamkos were on an odd-man rush and Stamkos converted a seamless pass as he slid the puck to Killorn who scored his 11th of the season.
Talented, brilliant, incredible, amazing, show-stopping, spectacular pic.twitter.com/Aposip1Y3X
— Tampa Bay Lightning (@TBLightning) January 7, 2022
Lining Up: The depth and character that can be built when you are without Kucherov for 32 games and Brayden Point out 14 games as well with a shoulder injury.
Perry’s opening goal gave the Lightning a 1-0 lead as Pierre-Edouard Bellemare delivered his sixth assist while Victor Hedman connected on his 29th assist of the season. Cooper noted how the third line is becoming an issue for Lightning opponents.
“They tilt the ice in their favor in most games,” said Cooper. “Perry has 10 goals in his last 17 games, (Pat) Maroon has six and Bellemare has four. Those have come in maybe the last 10-15 games. They are check and scoring and spending a lot of time in the offensive zone.”
Familar Face Atop the Standings: Tampa Bay became the first team in the NHL to reach 50 points. They did this three other times, including last season when they were on their way to winning back-to-back Stanley Cups.
In conclusion, they hold a two-point lead on the Carolina Hurricanes and the Florida Panthers in the Eastern Conference as younger players have been thrown in and have delivered to accentuate “Cooper Culture” in Tampa Bay.
“A lot of guys stepped up – so many guys,” noted the coach. “We got goaltending, but in the end we had to defend. Aside from the Columbus game, we put three or four up. We munch points here and there and accumulate and put ourself up in the standings.”