Kucherov keeps making history
by Lucas Aykroyd|04 JUL 2021
NHL playoff scoring leader Nikita Kucherov, who earned bronze medals with Russia at the 2017 and 2019 Worlds, is one win away from his second Stanley Cup with the Tampa Bay Lightning.
photo: Andre Ringuette / HHOF-IIHF Images
Game Three of the 2021 Stanley Cup final was an historic occasion in itself, and Nikita Kucherov of the Tampa Bay Lightning found ways to make it even more historic.

The Lightning thumped the host Montreal Canadiens 6-3 on Friday and spoiled Habs head coach Dominic Ducharme’s return behind the bench after a two-week absence due to COVID-19. Kucherov, who leads the NHL playoff scoring race (8+24=32) with more points than any other player has assists, chipped in two more points as the defending champions took a 3-0 series stranglehold.

History-wise, it was the first Canadiens playoff game at a building other than the Montreal Forum since 1924. The 28-year-old Kucherov – who has now totalled more points in back-to-back playoff years (66) than any player other than Wayne Gretzky or Mario Lemieux – chose this night to surpass Habs legend Maurice “Rocket” Richard on the all-time NHL points list (127 to 126).
“Kuch” set up Victor Hedman’s 2-0 power-play goal at 3:27 of the first period and added his eighth goal of this post-season on a 2-on-0 break with Ondrej Palat at 1:40 of the second period. The 181-cm, 81-kg superstar also screened Montreal goalie Carey Price when Czech defenceman Jan Rutta opened the scoring just 1:52 in. 

Characteristically, though, the low-key Kucherov shifted the post-game spotlight to veteran Tyler Johnson, who scored twice, including the eventual winner early in the middle frame: “He’s been playing a lot for us, and he had a helluva game. Two huge goals for us. He’s the kind of player that likes that kind of pressure.”

Of course, Kucherov could basically have been talking about himself.

He’s not as fast as Connor McDavid, as big as Leon Draisaitl, or as hard of a shooter as Alexander Ovechkin. Yet in terms of his ability to find open ice, read the play, and distribute the puck, he might be the smartest player in hockey today. It’s no wonder Kucherov equalled the NHL single-season record for assists by a right winger (87) with all-time Czech great Jaromir Jagr (1995-96) in 2018-19. That year, he won the scoring title with 128 points, a record for Russians.
Russian forward Nikita Kucherov of the Tampa Bay Lightning poses with the Ted Lindsay Award, the President's Trophy, the Hart Memorial Trophy and the Art Ross Trophy during the 2019 NHL Awards ceremony in Las Vegas.
photo: Bruce Bennett / Getty Images
What makes Kucherov’s 2021 post-season extra-special is the fact that he didn’t play all season long due to hip surgery. And despite some griping that the Lightning’s roster is currently over the salary cap – a consideration that does not apply during the playoffs – it is ludicrous to claim that not playing all year would make you sharper for the playoff hockey meat grinder.

Kucherov is as magical in his own way as the only other two Russians ever to win NHL playoff scoring titles, Yevgeni Malkin (2009) and Ovechkin (2018). His being a focal point is reflected in how fan chatter is almost equally split over whether he’s dirty and takes dives or whether he doesn’t even draw as many penalties as he rightfully should.

Again, it’s not like Kucherov cares about any of this. Not with the chance to drink Stanley Cup champagne again so achingly close.

“We have a game plan and everybody’s playing it,” Kucherov said. “Everybody’s doing their job. When everybody’s doing their job, it makes it easier. Go out there, play a full 60 minutes – that’s what we’re doing right now.”
“Kuch” has also dazzled in his recent IIHF appearances for Russia. In fact, his combined output at the 2017 and 2019 IIHF World Championship en route to two bronze medals is nearly identical (31 points in 20 games) to what he’s done in these playoffs.

The man who still holds the U18 Worlds single-tournament points record (21, 2011) has yet to place higher in IIHF competition than the silver medal he got when Russia fell 1-0 to Sweden in overtime in the 2012 World Junior final in Calgary. But it’s not because he doesn’t always step up in his national team uniform.

And he’s getting it done again for the Lightning.

In an earlier, simpler time, opposing teams would have put a shadow on Kucherov, the way Boston’s Don Marcotte hounded Montreal’s Guy Lafleur or Edmonton’s Esa Tikkanen pestered the L.A.-era Gretzky. But modern NHL defensive systems don’t allow for that. And the supporting cast of Hedman, captain Steven Stamkos, and top goal-scorer Brayden Point (14 goals) is just too good, even if Kucherov has a quieter night like Game Two.

So it’s hard not to conclude that Montreal is toast here. When Kucherov became the fifth player in NHL history to score 30 points in more than one playoff year, he joined a group that is synonymous with Stanley Cup success: Gretzky (six times), Mark Messier (three times), Jari Kurri (two times), and Mario Lemieux (two times).

No club since the 1942 Toronto Maple Leafs has rallied from a 3-0 series deficit to win the Cup. Granted, we learned last month that you should never count out a motivated Canadian team. Canada lost its first three games of the IIHF World Championship in Riga, but fought back to edge defending champion Finland 3-2 in overtime in the gold medal game.

There hasn’t been a Stanley Cup final sweep since a run of four consecutive sweeps in the 1990’s: New Jersey over Detroit (1995), Colorado over Florida (1996), Detroit over Philadelphia (1997), and Detroit over Washington (1998).

Surely in Game Four on Monday night, the Habs will do everything in their power to shut down Kucherov and eke out at least one win on home ice.

Yet it is virtually certain that Tampa Bay will wind up with its second straight Cup sooner or later. Also, it’ll be a shocker if a Russian name doesn’t win up on the Conn Smythe Trophy as playoff MVP, whether it’s Kucherov or top goalie Andrei Vasilevski (1.98 GAA, 93.8 save percentage, four shutouts).

“What we did in the bubble last year was very special, and we want to relive that moment,” said Hedman. That’s the kind of history that really interests Nikita Kucherov.