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Kucherov always striving to improve for Lightning

All-star forward not satisfied with statistics, thinks he can 'be a lot better'

by Dan Rosen @drosennhl / Senior Writer

Nikita Kucherov makes sure his 4-month-old son, Max, isn't sleeping because he's about to go into the garage and it could get loud.

"I only shoot when he's awake," the Tampa Bay Lightning right wing said.

It could be after a win or a loss, a game when Kucherov has three points or zero points. The result, frankly, is inconsequential when compared to Kucherov's state of mind.

How does he feel about his game that night? Was something off? Is he not satisfied?

If the answer is yes, Kucherov will go into his two-car garage, where he installed a synthetic rink, and start shooting.

"I wouldn't say I use it a lot, but I've done it because sometimes you're so [mad] at the game. If the puck doesn't go in, you just go in there and use the heavy pucks and just shoot it," Kucherov said. "There's a bunch of different weighted pucks in there and it just calms me down a little. I'll do it right after the game, right after I get home. Even if we win the game, I may not have played well. You know the next game might be fine, but if you're not going to work for yourself, you're not going to be prepared for the next game and then it's not going to be different for you in the next game."

This is quintessential Kucherov, the likely favorite to win the Hart Trophy this season as NHL most valuable player.

It doesn't matter to him that he leads the NHL with 78 points (22 goals, 56 assists), putting him on a 130-point pace, which would break Alexander Mogilny's record for most points in an NHL season by a Russia-born player (127 in 1992-93).

It's not enough for him that Tampa Bay leads the NHL with 37 wins and 76 points through 49 games, or that it enters its game against the Pittsburgh Penguins at PPG Paints Arena on Wednesday (8 p.m. ET; NBCSN, SN, TVAS) on pace to tie the NHL record for most victories in a season (62) set by the Detroit Red Wings in 1995-96.

Video: TBL@BUF: Kucherov strikes after Stamkos' steal

In Kucherov's mind, if he's not always working on his craft, someone else is going to pass him, be better than him, and that's unacceptable.

"Kucherov is just a real hockey fanatic," Hockey Hall of Famer Pavel Bure said. "He built an artificial rink at home, reads only about hockey, talks about hockey. Everyone's different, but it's great that a person is so invested in what he does."

To put it another way, "He wants to be the best," Lightning captain Steven Stamkos said. "He wants to have the most goals. He wants to have the most points. He wants to win."

Kucherov didn't have any of those last season. He finished tied for ninth in goals (39), third in points (100), and the Lightning lost in seven games to the Washington Capitals in the Eastern Conference Final. Kucherov, like Stamkos, didn't have a point in Games 6 and 7 as Tampa Bay was shut out in each.

Kucherov said he's over the loss to Washington, but called it a learning experience and that the feeling he had after Game 7 now serves as motivation for him to work harder to get back to that same level so this time he can deliver in that big moment.

That work takes place almost everywhere Kucherov goes no matter the time or day.

"People don't understand how hard he works away from the rink," Stamkos said. "Like, it's all hockey. He'll text me the night before a game if there is a game going on, 'Did you see that,' or 'Did you see that move,' or 'Did you see how many minutes he played tonight.' … It's just crazy how much he loves the game and always wants to get better. He's always in the dressing room stickhandling with a ball. He's always walking around with his sticks."

Kucherov traces his drive to his arrival in North America nearly seven years ago.

In Russia, Kucherov said he didn't have the tools or the time to work at his craft the way he wanted to. He realized he could here after arriving for the 2012-13 season, when he played for Quebec and Rouyn-Noranda in the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League.

"I remember seeing people looking at what they were eating and how they were preparing for the game," said Kucherov, who was selected by the Lightning in the second round (No. 58) in the 2011 NHL Draft. "Back in Russia, we didn't have that. We were just messing around. It was who cares who you're playing against? No nap. Nothing. I came over here and guys were really strict about their diets, their work after and before on the ice. In Russia, we had an hour from this minute to this minute, that's it. You couldn't stay longer and you couldn't go on earlier, nothing. When I came here, it was just a different life and I just fell in love with it."

He remembers being jealous of some of the players he met, like Colorado Avalanche center Nathan MacKinnon and Montreal Canadiens left wing Jonathan Drouin, who were both playing for Halifax in the QMJHL in 2012-13.

"All these players, they're so good and I wanted to be like one of them, like [Patrick] Kane and those guys," Kucherov said. "I don't have good speed and I didn't have a good shot. I didn't have a bunch of things. But I wanted to work to be closer to them."

Video: MTL@TBL: Kucherov one-times Hedman's pass for PPG

Now, he is right there with them, if not ahead.

It's not enough.

"Everybody is looking at the points and it's good, but the overall game, I think, can be a lot better," Kucherov said. "There's a lot of games when I don't get a lot of scoring chances, I make bad passes, I'm fumbling pucks. Do I have a puck on my stick for as long as I want it? There's always something to grow."

Enter the synthetic ice.

"I wanted to work on my shot," Kucherov said of why he initially had it installed. "It's not going to come to you like this (snaps fingers). You have to earn it. Sometimes it's paying off and I'm happy with that. Sometimes it's not, so I have to keep working at it. Nobody has to push me."

The only people that seem to be able to turn his focus away from the game are his wife, Anastasiya, and their son, Max.

"Since I've had a kid, it's different," Kucherov said. "You come home and you look at things differently."

Bure thinks that might be why Kucherov is on pace for his best season in the NHL.

"I think fatherhood is directly related to how you play," Bure said. "Look at Alex Ovechkin, who, in anticipation of becoming a father, so passionately took off in the playoffs that he won his first Stanley Cup."

Kucherov isn't prepared to even think of this season as his best or as a success because so far, it has a hint of how it went last season, when he also led the NHL in scoring at the All-Star break with 64 points (27 goals, 37 assists) and the Lightning were first in the League with 71 points.

He finished tied for 11th in scoring after the break with 36 points (12 goals, 24 assists) in 31 games and the Lightning were tied for ninth in the standings with 42.

"For half a season it's good, but nothing has been done yet," Kucherov said. "Last year, I was in the same position. It was a good year, too, in the first half, but I want to make sure this year I raise the bar and keep the bar high. That's what good players do every year, consistently."

It's not surprising to Kucherov's teammates to hear him talk like that.

"He's hard on himself sometimes, and it makes him one of the best players in the world," Lightning goalie Andrei Vasilevskiy said. "Even if he scored three goals tonight, the next game he will try to score five, he'll want to score five. He just never stops."

Kucherov, though, has gotten better at diversifying himself even while thinking about the game. Stamkos cited a recent Geico commercial starring Kucherov as an example.

"Kuch loves to laugh," Stamkos said. "I thought that commercial was bang on in terms of him coming out of his shell."

It was also a reflection of Kucherov's typical demeanor around the rink because he doesn't say anything or change his facial expression in the ad. He just walks around a lamp store turning on lights as one of the other characters mentions how awesome he is at lighting the lamp.

"He doesn't say much on the bench or in the locker room," Lightning defenseman Anton Stralman said. "He's one of those quiet guys that goes about his business and when it's game time, it's on."

It's never off.

"If he has that button, I didn't see it yet," Vasilevskiy said. "He is never satisfied."

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