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Nikita Kucherov's growing in confidence, scoring goals

by Bryan Burns / Tampa Bay Lightning

The first time Nikita Kucherov touched the puck in the National Hockey League, he scored.

Since becoming the seventh Tampa Bay player to record a goal in his NHL debut, the expectation for Kucherov to score and score often has been, fairly or unfairly, ever present.

Fortunately for the Lightning, the 21-year-old Russian has been mostly up to the challenge.

Twelve games into the 2014-15 season, Kucherov has scored five times, including his first career hat trick on October 28, and is second on the 8-3-1 Lightning for goals behind only captain Steven Stamkos (8).

“We got a glimpse of it last you and you see the skill set that he has and he’s found some good chemistry with [Tyler Johnson and Ondrej Palat],” Stamkos said. Those guys are great players, and Kuch has come a long way in understanding how to play both sides of the rink. He’s been a big part of our success this year, and we’re going to continue to need him.”

After being selected by Tampa Bay in the second round (58th overall) of the 2011 NHL Entry Draft, Kucherov scored 24 goals in 23 games for Russian junior club Krasnaya Armiya Moscow.

The following year in the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League, Kucherov tallied 26 in 27 regular season games for the Rouyn-Noranda Huskies.

Kucherov joined the Lightning for the 2013-14 season. On November 25, 2013, in a home game against the New York Rangers, he stepped on the ice for his first NHL shift. Seconds later, Kucherov unleashed a slap shot from the left circle that beat Rangers goaltender Henrik Lundqvist.

“There were so many different things in my head when I scored that goal,” Kucherov said. “It’s really crazy actually when you think about it: first shift, first shot, first touch. I was just so happy. I didn’t care if it was my first shift or second shift or any shift. I just wanted to score and stay with the team.”

Kucherov registered nine goals and nine assists (18 points) in 52 games during his debut year in the NHL.

Entering 2014-15, though, Kucherov wasn’t a lock to start the season with the Lightning out of training camp. But, after scoring six goals in the preseason to lead all NHL players, Kucherov made Tampa Bay’s Opening Night roster for the first time in his career.

Kucherov was shut out in his first eight games this season. He had a pair of assists against Montreal and put up three more at Winnipeg, but no goals.

A lower-body injury to Brett Connolly in Winnipeg, however, bumped Kucherov up to the Bolts’ second line with Johnson and Palat. A game later, Kucherov got on the board for the first time, tipping in an Anton Stralman blue line blast at Minnesota.

“I had so many chances to score early when I didn’t score, I was like, ‘What’s going on?’ I kind of thought about it a lot,” Kucherov said. “I had some pressure on myself because I’m thinking, ‘When am I going to score?’ and at that moment when I score, all the pressure goes away and I just start playing easier.”

The following game against Arizona at Amalie Arena, Kucherov had his breakthrough moment, registering his first career multi-goal game with a hat trick against the Coyotes.

“You go a couple games without (a goal), it feels like nothing’s going your way,” Stamkos said. “When you get one in, you kind of just relax a little bit and play your game and get back to the instincts that you play with usually. It’s a lot easier game when you have that confidence…He was getting the chances before. That’s a good thing. That’s the only time you start worrying is when you’re not getting them. He’s worked hard to click with that line, and he’s got that confidence now.”

Kucherov has become a master of the tip-in. The first goal in his hat trick game came from a deflection of Radko Gudas’ point shot. Two games later against Washington, Kucherov redirected Eric Brewer’s wrist shot up and over Capitals goalie Braden Holtby to break a 2-2 deadlock.

Three of Kucherov’s five goals in 2014-15 have come by way of the tip-in.

“I think you put him in that special group of he’s just got that innate ability to find pucks wherever they are,” Lightning head coach Jon Cooper said. “I think if you notice one difference in his game, if you go back and look at the goals he scored last year where he scored them and this year where he’s scoring them, these ones he’s scoring, he’s in front of the net, he’s in those blue paint areas, which probably didn’t see him as much last year scoring in those areas. That’s how you tell the growth of a player.”

Kucherov said he was “scared to go in front of the net” at times last year, but his willingness to enter those not-quite-safe areas this season has sparked his recent run of five goals in four games.

“It’s easier when the defenseman makes a good shot and you tip it because the goalie can’t see it,” he said. “The defenseman sees you and throws it your way, it’s easier for me to tip. I’ve never been in front of the net. This is my first year scoring goals on the tip-in.”

Because the Lightning were beset by multiple injuries during the first month of the season, finding secondary scorers to complement Stamkos, Johnson, Palat and Ryan Callahan has been needed.

Kucherov is filling that role quite nicely.

“He’s hungry. He’s really hungry,” Cooper said. “I think that year under his belt last year, even though there were the ups and downs, a few healthy scratches, you can see he wanted to get better, and he’s proven that this year.”

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