Nikita Kucherov TBL feature TUNE IN tonight

WASHINGTON -- Nikita Kucherov usually let’s his play do his talking for him.

Although the talented Tampa Bay Lightning forward has occasionally broken from his softspoken public persona to praise the performances of teammates -- for example, his rant in support of goalie Andrei Vasilevskiy winning the Conn Smythe Trophy as most valuable player of the 2021 Stanley Cup Playoffs -- efforts to get him to speak about his own accomplishments are usually futile.

So, if you want to know what it would mean to him to win the Art Ross Trophy as the NHL’s leader in points or the Hart Trophy as the League’s most valuable player this season, you’re better off seeking other voices, though even his teammates don’t seem to know.

“He never talks about it, so if it is on his mind, he keeps it to himself,” Lightning captain Steven Stamkos said last week. “He’s a guy that just puts the work in and you see the results. It’s been a special year. You look at all the different statistics, and he’s a guy that no matter who he’s on the ice with, he’s elevating their game, and this year more than ever.

“He’s the reason why we made the playoffs. So, just a heck of a year, a special year.”

How special?

Kucherov heads into the Lightning’s regular-season finale against the visiting Toronto Maple Leafs on Wednesday (7 p.m. ET; MAX, truTV, TNT, SN, TVAS), leading the NHL with 142 points (43 goals, 99 assists) in 80 games, four ahead of Nathan MacKinnon of the Colorado Avalanche, who has 138 points (51 goals, 87 assists) in 81 games, and 10 ahead of Connor McDavid of the Edmonton Oilers, who has 132 points (32 goals, 100 assists) in 75 games.

Kucherov needs one assist to become the fifth player in NHL history with 100 in a season, following McDavid, who got his 100th assist against the San Jose Sharks on Monday, and also joining Wayne Gretzky (11 times, most recently when he had 122 in 1990-91), Mario Lemieux (114 in 1988-89) and Bobby Orr (102 in 1970-71). Kucherov got his 99th assist by setting up Stamkos’ 40th goal of the season in a 4-2 loss to the Buffalo Sabres on Monday.

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“It just comes natural to him the way he produces,” Tampa Bay defenseman Victor Hedman said. “He doesn’t chase it. It makes it look easy sometimes. … It’s beautiful passes that he makes, and he could’ve had a few more if guys bear down. But he just keeps impressing you with how good he is and how consistent he’s been all year.”

Kucherov has set NHL career highs in goals, assists and points and factored into 50.4 percent of the Lightning’s 282 goals, helping them clinch a playoff berth for the seventh straight season and 10th time in his 11 NHL seasons. According to NHL Stats, the 30-year-old would be the second player since 1998-99 to score or assist on at least 50 percent of his team’s goals, joining McDavid (50.7 in 2018-19 and 57.4 percent in 2020-21).

Kucherov has 53 more points than Brayden Point, who is second on the Lightning with 89, the largest gap between a leader and second in points on a team since Pavel Bure led the Florida Panthers with 92 points in 2000-01, which was 55 more points than Viktor Kozlov, according to NHL Stats.

A Stanley Cup winner with Tampa Bay in 2020 and 2021, Kucherov has had standout seasons before, including when he won the Hart Trophy and Art Ross Trophy in 2018-19 with 128 points (41 goals, 87 assists) in 82 games. But coach Jon Cooper said he’s further elevated his play this season to help the Lightning qualify for the playoffs despite missing Vasilevskiy for their first 20 games following back surgery, and defenseman Mikhail Sergachev since Feb. 7 because of a fractured tibia and fibula in his left leg.

“I would say it’s another level in the sense that it’s, what I would say, the most complete year he’s had,” Cooper said. “We went one season without him (when Kucherov missed the 2020-21 regular season following hip surgery) and made the playoffs. Because we didn’t have to go the season without him, I can’t sit here and say we’d be in the same situation we are now without him. It would be hard to say that. He’s been remarkable.”

As compelling as the Art Ross race with Kucherov, MacKinnon and McDavid is, the competition for the Hart Trophy is even more crowded. Also in the heated conversation are Auston Matthews of the Toronto Maple Leafs, who needs one goal to be the first NHL player to score 70 in a season since Alexander Mogilny and Teemu Selanne each scored 76 in 1992-93, and Artemi PanarinAmi Panarin of the New York Rangers, who is fourth in the League with an NHL career-high 120 points (49 goals, 71 assists) in 82 games.

“There's a lot,” Hedman said. “These kind of numbers have not been reached in a long time. … That goes to show that guys are getting better. It's going to be close, but you obviously know who has my vote.”

As much as the Lightning would like to see Kucherov win the Hart for the second time, that’s mostly out of their control and in the hands of the voters from the Professional Hockey Writers Association. But they can help Kucherov secure the Art Ross with a strong regular-season finale against the Maple Leafs.

Tampa Bay (44-29-8) is locked into the first wild card into playoffs from the Eastern Conference, so though it would like to play well and win, Kucherov’s shot at the scoring title gives it something else tangible to focus on.

“We’re trying,” Stamkos said. “We’re not going to sacrifice trying to win the game, but we’re going to look for opportunities to try to help him out and put him in situations. But he doesn’t really need that much help. He’s pretty good on his own.”