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Kucherov keeps striving for more with Lightning

Forward has seven goals in first six games after scoring 40 last season

by Nicholas J. Cotsonika @cotsonika / Columnist

DETROIT -- Nikita Kucherov scored 40 goals for the Tampa Bay Lightning last season. He tied Toronto Maple Leafs center Auston Matthews for second in the NHL, four behind Pittsburgh Penguins captain Sidney Crosby. He set an NHL career high.

Still, he wanted more.

He spent most of the summer training in the Tampa area, skating four or five times a week. He installed synthetic ice and a net in his two-car garage.

"I get bored," Kucherov said. "I'll go there for 20 minutes, 40 minutes, a couple times a day. There's not much to do in the summer, so …"

So now look:

After scoring twice in the Lightning's 3-2 win against the Detroit Red Wings at Little Caesars Arena on Monday, Kucherov has seven goals, second in the NHL, two behind Washington Capitals captain Alex Ovechkin.

Video: TBL@DET: Kucherov roofs laser from the circle for PPG

He's the fourth player since 1987-88 to score in each of his team's first six games, joining Keith Tkachuk (St. Louis Blues, 2008-09), Mario Lemieux (Penguins, 1992-93) and Steve Yzerman (Detroit Red Wings, 1988-89).

If he scores against the New Jersey Devils at Prudential Center on Tuesday (7:30 p.m. ET; NBCSN, NHL.TV), he will become the first to score in each of his team's first seven games since Lemieux scored in each of the Penguins' first 12 in 1992-93.

"You work at your game, you're going to get better," Lightning coach Jon Cooper said. "He scores 30. Then he gets 40. Well, he's not sitting here saying, 'Oh, yeah, I got 40.' He says, 'Well, I want to get 50.' You kind of like that hunger at that, but that doesn't come easily. You have to work at that."

Imagine bored Nikita Kucherov going out to his garage day after day, shooting puck after puck, in the Florida heat and humidity.


[RELATED: Chemistry undeniable for Stamkos, Kucherov]


Now fast forward to the first period Monday. Kucherov had the puck in the right circle on the power play. Head up, he saw Red Wings defenseman Jonathan Ericsson in front of goaltender Jimmy Howard. A left-handed shot, Kucherov took a wrist shot on his left foot without moving his lower body, all wrists and arms.

The puck whizzed past Ericsson, past Howard's glove and into the upper right corner of the net, putting the Lightning ahead 2-0 at 10:56.

"I mean, not too many guys can shoot it like that," Lightning captain Steven Stamkos said. "I don't even think I have that in the repertoire."

This is one of the NHL's great goal-scorers talking. Stamkos has led the NHL twice and scored as many as 60 in a season (2011-12).

"It's just using proper technique and using his curve and his flex in his stick to sling it," Stamkos said. "It's like a slingshot when he shoots it like that. That's why it catches defenders off-guard and it caught the goalie off-guard, because not too many guys can shoot it with that accuracy and velocity from that position."

Kucherov got a little lucky when he scored the winner 1:47 into the third, nicking the puck in the crease, watching it slide ever-so-slowly underneath Howard and across the line. His shooting percentage is 29.2. He's not going to sustain that. His NHL career high over a season is the 16.3 percent he shot last season.

Video: TBL@DET: Kucherov pokes a loose puck past Howard

But he has scored on a slap shot, a rebound, a backhander past the outstretched stick of a defenseman upstairs, a wrist shot from the top of the left circle between two players upstairs, a backhander he put past the blocker because he figured the goalie would expect him to go glove side, and now these two.

Stamkos said Kucherov's release was in the top five in the game, maybe in the top three, maybe No. 1 when he has confidence and feels like he can't miss.

"I mean, he's just constantly working on his game," Stamkos said. "I always bring up the Marty St. Louis comparison, but with the work ethic that they both have, before practice, after practice, working on things, it shouldn't be a surprise when they have success. He's constantly working on it, and it's showing."

Notice Stamkos said Kucherov was constantly working on "his game," not just his shot. Cooper pointed out how Kucherov wasn't trying to pad his stats in the third period Monday. He had a chance to pick an opponent's pocket but stayed on the right side of him, ground out a check and forced a turnover. He made a play along the wall to get the puck out of the Lightning zone in the final seconds.

"He works at his 200-foot game," Cooper said. "And that's why you can put him out on the ice at the end of games when you're trying to protect a lead."

Told he could do something that hadn't been done since Lemieux did it, Kucherov had little reaction. The Lightning are 5-1-0. He wants to go 6-1-0.

"All right," he said. "I'm not trying to think much about it. I'm just trying to help my team get a W. I don't want to put much in my head. Just trying to stay loose and play the right way and play good."

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