Here's something for the rest of the Stanley Cup Playoffs field to chew on:
Tampa Bay Lightning winger Nikita Kucherov was injured for nearly all of the 2020 Playoffs.
Yet, he still put up eye-popping numbers that only a handful of players in the National Hockey League have been able to achieve on hockey's grandest stage.
Kucherov, in speaking to media for the first time since clinching the Stanley Cup in the Edmonton bubble on September 28, 2020, revealed he pulled a groin muscle in Tampa Bay's epic five-overtime Game 1 thriller versus Columbus to open the elimination rounds, a contest that was the fourth longest ever played in the NHL. The pulled groin affected his hip and never recovered. During the offseason he tried different methods to alleviate the injury, including a cortisone injection to relieve the pain. When none of those methods worked, however, the best option was to surgically repair the hip, which happened days before the start of training camp on December 29, keeping him out of the Lightning lineup for the entire regular season.
Kucherov recorded seven goals, 27 assists and 34 points during Tampa Bay's 25-game run to the franchise's second Stanley Cup in 2020, his assist and point totals Lightning all-time records.
Video: NIkita Kucherov on return to ice
Kucherov's 27 assists were the most ever by a NHL winger in a playoff season, three more than the next closest skater, Pittsburgh's Mark Recchi in 1991. His 27 assists were the fifth most in a playoff season among all skaters.
Kucherov is one of only 11 players to reach 34 points in a playoff season. He's one of three wingers to do so, along with Recchi and the New York Islanders' Mike Bossy in 1981.
The Russian right wing started skating with his teammates for the first time March 13 and has been a full participant in practice for a couple of weeks now. He said Friday he feels good when he's out on the ice and is looking forward to playing in a game for the first time in nearly eight months.
And he hopes that game is Sunday when the Lightning travel to Florida to take on the Panthers in Game 1 of their First Round series, the first-ever playoff series between the Sunshine State rivals.
"Right now, I feel really good," Kucherov said. "Nothing's bothering me. Feel strong. I think better than before."
Kucherov watched the Lightning from afar this season as the team went 36-17-3 during the regular season, their .670 point percentage the third highest in franchise history even without their superstar winger. The Bolts finished third in the stacked Central Division behind Carolina and First Round opponent Florida.
Kucherov admitted being out of action was a difficult proposition but feels he gained a newfound perspective on the game which should aid him in his return.
Video: Jon Cooper | 5.14.21
"You don't want to sit upstairs and watch the game," he said. "At the same time, I understand what I've been through and the purpose of me staying out and not playing and properly heal and feel better for the future. I look at the game from different angles and a different perspective, kind of picked up a few things here and there I can add to my game. Hopefully, I can use it in a game what I see."
More and more, it's looking like that game will be Sunday in Tampa Bay's playoff opener. Kucherov was once again a full participant in practice as the Bolts continued to prepare for the Florida series. He skated on a line at right wing alongside Ondrej Palat and Brayden Point, that trio causing fits for opposing teams last postseason and driving the bus offensively for the Lightning. And he lined up in his usual spot in the right circle on the Bolts' top unit during power-play drills. That group has been without one or both of its two main weapons in Kucherov and Steven Stamkos for over 14 months, the last time the two were on the ice together for a power play coming February 25, 2020 in Toronto.
His inclusion in both situations would seem to suggest he'll be ready to go once the playoffs begin. But he knows it won't be as easy as just dropping back into the lineup and picking up where he left off last postseason, saying "I have no choice," when asked how he can prepare for the intensity of a playoff game when he hasn't had any regular season games to work himself back in.
"There's no games before, so 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 said. "Hopefully it's not going to take long."
Head coach Jon Cooper warned against expecting Kucherov to magically fix all of the team's issues as soon as he enters the starting lineup.
"I don't think he's played a game in eight months, and there's something to be said for that," Cooper said. "The body's rested, but he's still coming off an injury that we weren't sure we were going to get him back in the First Round. He's got to get his timing and there's going to be parts of the game that probably frustrate him because he knows in his head he can make a play, but because you haven't played, he's got to catch up to the game. Now it seems to happen for the elite players a lot faster than it happens for others, and because he has such a great mind for the game, I don't think it'll take him too long to get back in. But until you get into the trenches and feel somebody other than your teammates hitting you, there is a difference."
Video: Yanni Gourde | 5.14.21
As a pivotal member of the team's penalty kill, Yanni Gourde has been going up against Kucherov daily during special teams work. He said it's exciting to watch Kucherov maneuver his way around the ice and that it looks like he's ready to go.
"He makes plays on the power play that no one else really sees," Gourde said. "It's so hard to play against that when I go on the PK. He's so deceptive. It's so hard to read. He's making those plays, making the right reads and making the right plays. It's fun to watch. It's fun to have him back on the ice with us."
It'll be even more fun when he lines up against the Panthers in the playoffs, a reality that, hopefully, is only two days away.