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Kucherov praised by rival top scorers, leads Lightning into playoffs

Art Ross winner had 128 points, most in NHL since 1995-96

by Nicholas J. Cotsonika @cotsonika / NHL.com Columnist

Ask Nikita Kucherov about himself or his season, and the Tampa Bay Lightning forward demurs. It's the media's job to describe players, he'll say. He doesn't want that stuff in his head so he can sleep well at night.

Suggest he looks like Patrick Kane, however, and his eyes light up. The words flow freely. And as he describes the Chicago Blackhawks forward, he describes himself.

"Players like Patrick Kane, he's unbelievable," Kucherov said. "I'm still a big fan of him and still watching his highlights and trying to copy my game from him. He's definitely a guy that I look up to."

 

[RELATED: Eastern Conference loaded with Cup contenders | Complete Lightning vs. Blue Jackets series coverage]

 

Well, everyone's looking up to Kucherov now as the Lightning open the best-of-7 Eastern Conference First Round against the Columbus Blue Jackets at Amalie Arena on Wednesday (7 p.m. ET; USA, SN360, TVAS, SUN, FS-O, NHL.TV), including Kane.

Consider this: Kane set an NHL career high this season with 110 points (44 goals, 66 assists), four more than 2015-16, when he won the Art Ross Trophy as scoring champion and the Hart Trophy as most valuable player.

He was third in the League and 18 points behind Kucherov.

"He's taking it to another level this year," Kane said.

Edmonton Oilers center Connor McDavid set an NHL career high this season with 116 points (41 goal, 75 assists), eight more than when he won the Art Ross last season and 16 more than when he won it two seasons ago.

He was second in the League and 12 points behind Kucherov.

"As a fellow offensive guy, I have a lot of respect for what he's been doing," McDavid said. "He's playing good hockey."

Video: TBL@BOS: Kucherov sets record with his 128th point

Kucherov won the Art Ross with 128 points (41 goals, 87 assists). No one has had that many points since forwards Mario Lemieux had 161 (69 goals, 92 assists) and Jaromir Jagr had 149 (62, 87) for the Pittsburgh Penguins in 1995-96.

Penguins centers Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin have never had that many in a season. Neither have Washington Capitals forwards Alex Ovechkin or Nicklas Backstrom. Or San Jose Sharks center Joe Thornton or …

The list is long.

Only 23 players in NHL history have had more than 128 points in a season, predominantly Hockey Hall of Famers in more wide-open eras. Kucherov's point total was the 52nd highest in NHL history.

"It's crazy," said Crosby, who won the Art Ross with 120 points (36 goals, 84 assists) in 2006-07 and 104 points (36 goals, 68 assists) in 2013-14. "It's a crazy number. It's really impressive. It says a lot about how consistent he's been and just at the rate he's been able to produce. It's pretty amazing."

Kucherov is the leading candidate for the Hart Trophy. The Lightning had 62 wins, tying the 1995-96 Detroit Red Wings for the NHL record, and 128 points, four short of the record held by the 1976-77 Montreal Canadiens.

"An amazing player, probably the biggest reason that team's having so much success over there, the way everything goes through him," Kane said. "I think you can say, by far, the best player in the League this year."

Like Kane, Kucherov is a left-handed shot on the right wing who plays like a center. He is 5-foot-11, 178 pounds; Kane is 5-10, 177. He has great hands and hockey sense, always has his head up to find passing and shooting lanes and has a wicked release.

"Definitely picked up a few things from him and been upping my game," Kucherov said of Kane. "I think it helped me a lot in my game and the success I have. I like to be with puck. At the same time, I like to play without the puck too and get open for teammates and help them out a little bit and create some room for them and make some confusion. …

"He's not a fast guy, not a big guy, kind of similar to me. I would say he's the guy that controls the game in every situation."

Kane said he and Kucherov find a lot of similar spots on the ice where they can succeed.

"The thing I like about him is he's engaged in every game," Kane said. "When you watch him, if someone hits him or does something to him he doesn't like, he's not afraid to stand up for himself and fight back. At the same time, I think you watch, on the ice, he makes a lot of quick plays. He sees the ice quicker than anyone else. And he's got a lot of good players around him who can finish off those plays."

Video: TBL@TOR: Kucherov joins Stamkos, Point with 40 goals

Kucherov excels at even strength and on the power play.

At even strength this season, Kucherov had 26 goals, tied for 16th in the NHL, and 80 points, one behind the leader, McDavid.

"I think the thing that makes him so dangerous is just, he's got so many different strengths," Crosby said. "You think about his speed. He creates a lot of separation in the neutral zone, gets odd-man rushes with that. And then his shot's super dangerous. He doesn't necessarily need to be on top of the goalie or near the net to score. He can score from a pretty considerable distance. On top of that, he sees the ice really well. So if you're taking away (space), if you're tight to him, he can find the open guy."

On the power play this season, Kucherov had 15 goals, tied for eighth in the NHL, and 48 points, eight more than anyone else in the League.

"He's developed his shot," Backstrom said. "That's the first thing I thought about this year. He's just firing from that power-play point, and he's got a great release. And obviously, we all know that he's a great setup man. He's got good patience and is a really fast guy. He's a heck of a player. He's probably been the best."

Hard to argue.

"Yeah, very impressive," said Thornton, who won the Art Ross with 125 points (29 goal, 96 assists) and the Hart in 2005-06. "I think obviously you got to play on some good teams and play with really good players. I think he'd probably say the same. Your linemates are a big part of that, getting there, and a lot of things have to go right. You got to stay healthy. But yeah, big kudos to him. It's a big accomplishment."

NHL.com staff writers Tom Gulitti and Tracey Myers and NHL.com correspondents Eric Gilmore and Derek Van Diest contributed to this report.  

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