Silent Star Nikita Kucherov Is Tampa's MVP as Lightning Close In on Stanley Cup

Abbey MastraccoContributor IIJuly 3, 2021

Tampa Bay Lightning right wing Nikita Kucherov (86) follows a play during the second period of Game 2 of the NHL hockey Stanley Cup finals series against the Montreal Canadiens, Wednesday, June 30, 2021, in Tampa, Fla. (AP Photo/Phelan M. Ebenhack)
Phelan M. Ebenhack/Associated Press

As soon as it became apparent that the Montreal Canadiens would have trouble hanging in there against the vaunted Tampa Bay Lightning in Game 1 of the Stanley Cup Final, the conversation about who should win the Conn Smythe Trophy began.

Tampa Bay goaltender Andrei Vasilevskiy or center Brayden Point? What about one of Point's linemates, Nikita Kucherov? Sure, there is an argument for Montreal goalie Carey Price since this award is intended for the most valuable player in the Stanley Cup playoffs, meaning the entire postseason, and he did get the scrappy Habs into the Cup Final with some Vezina-worthy play.

But the player defining the Stanley Cup playoffs is Kucherov—even outside of the Conn Smythe conversation. Between the salary-cap conversation and his production, the right wing has been one of the focal points of the postseason.

"That's one of the best players in the world," Lightning captain Steven Stamkos told reporters after Game 1. "He's playing like a beast right now. He's so, so good."

With back-to-back 30-point postseason performances, he's in rarefied air. The only other players to do that were Wayne Gretzky and Mario Lemieux. 

You would be hard-pressed to find a more loaded roster than this Lightning vintage, so if you think of Vasilevskiy, Point or even defenseman Victor Hedman, so if he's not the first elite player on the roster you think of, that's why. He might not even be the first player you think of in a conversation about NHL greats because players like Connor McDavid and Nathan MacKinnon do still exist. And it's not like he's underrated considering he won the Hart Trophy in 2019 on the back of 128-point regular season.

But 32 postseason points and closing in on a second Stanley Cup in as many years would justify some hype. Kucherov has eight goals and 24 assists. No other player in the postseason has 24 points, with linemate Point the closest with 23.

"He’s an elite player in this league that has a scoring touch that not many guys can say they have," defenseman Ryan McDonagh said. "He can score in different fashions, power play and 5-on-5 and I think when he’s on his game he just lets the game come to him and take what’s given and is just in the right spots. Playing with some great linemates, he’s allowed to set them up a lot of times and they can set him up as well. He has that great finishing ability, so for us when he’s making plays out there it’s a great sign for us."

Phelan Ebenhack/Associated Press

Kucherov scored his eighth goal a little under two minutes into in the second period Friday, finishing off a pretty pass by Ondrej Palat. The Habs turned over the puck in the offensive zone, and Erik Cernak sent a long outlet pass to Palat to start the rush. It increased the Lightning's lead to 3-1 and ended all hope of any comeback for the home team.

"Everybody's buying in, and everybody's doing their job," Kucherov said following Game 3. "And when everybody's doing their job, it makes it easier and we all play a full 60 minutes the right way, and that's what we're doing right now."

You might not know it from the few interviews he's done since the series began, but we might be seeing one of the great playoff performances. And it's coming after Kucherov missed the entire 2020-21 regular season while recovering from hip surgery.

"It was tough mentally, not being able to play, but that's all in the past," Kucherov said Monday. "I'm just really enjoying the moment and happy to be with the boys and just excited to play in the Final."

Phelan M. Ebenhack/Associated Press

But it doesn't look like anything has hindered the 28-year-old. Throughout the spring and into summer, he's played as he always has, using a solid two-way game, explosive skating and a deadly shot. His uncanny ability to set up his teammates is evidenced by his assists. The power play lacked a significant punch after he left the ice injured during Game 6 of the semifinal round against the New York Islanders. Luckily for Tampa Bay, it hasn't had to be without him in the Final.

But here's where the controversy comes into play. Right now, per CapFriendly, the Lightning are around $18 million over the salary cap. After winning the Cup last season, it was assumed by many that they would have to break up the team to get under the flat cap. But general manager Julien BriseBois buried Kucherov's $9.5 million cap hit on long-term injured reserve all season and activated him ahead of the first game of the postseason against the Florida Panthers.

The Bolts broke no rules despite the cap maneuvering not sitting right with many. After all, the team was good enough to make it to the playoffs without an integral part of their lineup. But.

The league didn't find any evidence that Tampa Bay was holding a healthy player out of the lineup during the regular season, and the salary cap doesn't matter during the playoffs. Prior to the first game of the Stanley Cup Final, commissioner Gary Bettman said the Lightning did not improperly circumvent the cap.

So Kucherov returned to a team that was already good enough to win without him. This could be a reason he doesn't get the Conn Smythe despite the fact that it is supposed to be awarded based solely on postseason performance.

But it's less about individual performances anyway. This Lightning team is on the verge of cementing itself as a dynasty because Kucherov complements the team and vice versa, which is why they are in a position to sweep the Habs and claim their second straight Stanley Cup.

"The individual accolades got pushed to the side," Lightning coach Jon Cooper said. "I know it sounds cliche, but it's the truth. They all just pull in the same direction. It's amazing to listen on the bench compared to four years ago. It's amazing what's being said and how everybody speaks up. It's been marvelous to watch and watch this team grow.

"It took us some time, but now it's starting to pay some dividends. We've still got a ways to go here, but regardless, they've put the team first, and that's why we've had success."

The Lightning were already a scary team. Kucherov makes them seem downright unstoppable.