Tampa Bay Lightning right winger Nikita Kucherov leads the 2021 Stanley Cup Playoffs for scoring currently with five goals and 18 points and is aiming to become the first player since Mario Lemieux in 1991 and 1992 to lead all NHL players in scoring in consecutive playoff years.
Kucherov tallied seven goals and 34 points in 25 games last season to pace the 2020 Playoffs and lead the Lightning to the organization's second Stanley Cup.
But there were times when Kucherov wondered if he'd ever be in a position this season to help his teammates try to repeat as Cup champions.
Kucherov dealt with discomfort in his hip in the offseason following Tampa Bay's Cup run in 2020. He tried rehab, a cortisone shot, skating through the pain, anything to make it go away.
The only solution was to have offseason hip surgery, a procedure he underwent December 29, 15 days before the start of the 2020-21 season. Surgery would require him to miss the entire regular season. The prescribed five-month rehab meant he'd be lucky to get back for the Second Round of the playoffs.
And that's even if the Lightning made the postseason, who now would be without their star winger and top point producer from each of the previous five seasons.
Video: Brayden Point, Nikita Kucherov | 6.11.21
But Kucherov was doggedly determined to return sooner than expected. There might not be a player in the National Hockey League that works harder on his game than the 27-year-old Russian. Kucherov approached his rehab with the same fervor he would in preparing himself in a typical offseason to get in playing shape for the season, or stay at his peak physical condition while in season. By March 13, Kucherov was skating on the ice with his teammates for the first time, still nowhere near ready to play in a game but an important first step to reach that goal.
And when the Lightning qualified for the playoffs for the seventh time in the last eight seasons and the 13th time total in franchise history by finishing third in the newly-configured Central Division, Kucherov was ready to return to the lineup. In the playoff opener against Florida, his first game in about seven-and-a-half months, Kucherov showed no signs of rust, scoring a pair of power-play goals and adding an assist to lead the Lightning to a come-from-behind 5-4 victory in Game 1.
He's continued to produce at the same level throughout this postseason, an incredible testament to the caliber of player he is and the work he did to get back.
It was a process to get there, however, almost as much mentally as it was physically.
On Friday, two days before the Lightning open their Stanley Cup Semifinals series against the New York Islanders, he opened up about the toll it took to get to this point.
"Missing the whole year, you ask any player, you don't want to be that guy," Kucherov said. "It's been tough just to watch the game from my house or from the stands. Going through the treatments and workouts and skating by myself, it's just mentally tough, but I had to go through it and I think I got better at it."
Kucherov was asked what rehab was like. His answer pulled back the curtain on the strain any injured player goes through to get back to playing the game they love.
"I had to go to the gym every day, and I hated it," he said. "I do the same stuff every day. It's really annoying. You get down on yourself sometimes. You want to go out there and play. Instead, you're going to the gym and doing this rehab stuff. It was tough. I got home from the game, guys are feeling good and I've got, tomorrow's the same thing. I don't get excited. I was trying to find a way to stay positive. Being with my family a little bit, seeing my son grow, that helped me a lot too to get away from the game a little bit and from thinking too much of it. It wasn't easy. But I think I got a lot stronger mentally and I understand what it takes to go through it."
There was one benefit from sitting out the season. Kucherov said he was able to see the game differently watching from afar rather than playing in it, a perspective he's been able to incorporate into his play now but one he never would have gained had he not been injured.
"Looking at the game from a different standpoint, power plays, how the team plays, how the team defends, how much time I would have if I was there, just stuff like that," he said.
Video: Jon Cooper | 6.11.21
Much was made - particularly from fans of opposing teams - about the Lightning being able to place Kucherov on long-term injured reserve to become cap compliant. And then Kucherov rejoining the Lightning roster for the playoffs where there is no salary cap. After the Lightning defeated the Carolina Hurricanes in the Second Round in five games earlier in the week, the Hurricanes finishing first in the Central Division during the regular season but getting bounced by the third-seeded Bolts, Canes defenseman Dougie Hamilton said his team lost to a Lightning team "$18 million over the cap or whatever they are," clearly salty about Tampa Bay's ability to add a player the caliber of Kucherov for a postseason run.
Kucherov addressed Hamiton's comments too on Friday.
"I was out," he said. "I didn't make the rules whether it's the cap space or something like that. It's not me. I didn't do it on purpose, I had to do the surgery. I had to go through the whole five months of rehabilitation, and when the time came I was ready to play that was the playoffs."
Lightning head coach Jon Cooper has seen Kucherov's growth, as well as the rest of his players, following the team's shocking First Round exit in the 2019 Columbus sweep. Kucherov used that disappointment as fuel in a remarkable playoff run in 2020, when he set Lightning franchise records for assists and points in a playoffs, his 27 assists the fifth most in a playoff season all-time in the NHL and most ever by a winger.
"When we needed him, he just put the team on his back," Cooper said. "But he wouldn't get fazed when things wouldn't go his way. If guys were being physical on him where maybe years ago it used to affect him in a different way, now he channels that energy into making the teams pay on the ice. That is huge mental growth."
Cooper marveled at the incredible strain Kucherov put on himself this year to get back into shape to play and contribute at the level he's currently producing at.
More than anything he's appreciative.
And, he and the rest of the Lightning are reaping the benefits.
"It's tough," Cooper said. "Hockey players, their shelf life is their 20s and if you're lucky you get to play in your early 30s now. You lose a whole year, that's got to be tough. Understand players are getting paid and stuff like that, but there's so much more to it. It's your job and you don't get to play it forever and to have one of those years taken away, that's got to be tough on your mind. I'm so glad he's getting to play now in the playoffs because it's had to be a grueling time to sit out and rehab and not having any control if your team's going to make the playoffs because that's the only way you get to play. That was one of the big things was let's make the playoffs so Kuch can have some semblance of a year. It's paying off for him."