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Kucherov a difference-maker in Lightning series win against Devils

Forward set Tampa Bay record with 10 points, had deciding goal in Game 5 clincher

by Mike G. Morreale @mikemorrealeNHL / NHL.com Staff Writer

TAMPA -- Any notion that Nikita Kucherov was wearing down at a point in the season when the Tampa Bay Lightning needed him most is a distant memory after his performance against the New Jersey Devils in the Eastern Conference First Round.

Kucherov, who had two goals, three assists and a minus-3 rating in his last eight regular-season games, was a player on a mission once the Stanley Cup Playoffs began.

The 24-year-old forward helped lead the Lightning past the Devils in their best-of-7 series, capping a 10-point performance (five goals, five assists) with the game-winning goal in a 3-1 win in Game 5 at Amalie Arena on Saturday.

 

[RELATED: Lightning defeat Devils, advance to second round | Complete Lightning vs. Devils series coverage]

 

Kucherov scored, passed and even threw his weight around to provide the Lightning with an emotional spark in each game. He has a five-game playoff point streak that includes four power-play points, three game-winning goals, six hits and five takeaways.

"It feels great, especially at home for our fans," Kucherov said. "I think we played well defensively and responsibly and teams that play well defensively do well."

Kucherov set a Lightning record for most points in a playoff series (10). The previous mark of nine points was last achieved by Tyler Johnson (four goals, five assists) in a seven-game series win against the New York Rangers in the 2015 Eastern Conference Final.

Video: NJD@TBL, Gm5: Kucherov beats Schneider from the point

"I thought he elevated his play throughout the series, there's no question," Lightning coach Jon Cooper said. "That line (J.T. Miller, Steven Stamkos, Kucherov) had contributions on the power play in Game 1 and Game 2, but as the series went on they elevated their 5-on-5 play.

"Kooch was a huge part of that; he had an impact. He impacted with his physical play and the goals he scored. Kooch rose to the occasion at a time when we needed him to."

Kucherov moved into a second-place tie with Vincent Lecavalier for most playoff points in Lightning history. His 52 points (27 goals, 25 assists) in 50 games are 16 points behind Martin St. Louis. Lecavalier scored 52 points (24 goals, 28 assists) in 63 playoff games with the Lightning.

Video: TBL@NJD, Gm4: Kucherov seals win with empty-net goal

"He's just an elite player and he's shown up on this stage several times over the last few years," Lightning defenseman Anton Stralman said. "He has the ability to make the big play that can ultimately win you a game or win you a playoff series. I'm glad he's on my team."

Kucherov also ranks second in Lightning history with 27 playoff goals, six behind St. Louis. He also equaled St. Louis' record with three game-winning goals in a series. St. Louis scored three in a 4-2 series win against the Washington Capitals in the 2003 Eastern Conference First Round.

"He's an extreme competitor," Devils coach John Hynes said. "He's a guy who has talent, but he's not a perimeter player. He's very strong on the puck, competes and has good hockey sense, and is the type of offensive player you need to have success and have a chance to win the Stanley Cup.

"Even if you check him and play him hard, he never gets deterred."

Kucherov finished third in the regular season with 100 points (39 goals, 61 assists), behind Connor McDavid (108) of the Edmonton Oilers and Claude Giroux (102) of the Philadelphia Flyers. He set NHL career-high totals in assists, points, shots (279), average ice time (19:49), and takeaways (66).

"[Kucherov] is phenomenal," Lightning defenseman Victor Hedman said. "He's a game-breaker. Beyond his point production is his play all over the ice. He's responsible defensively, gets pucks deep when he has to, but he can make those [offensive] plays. Kucherov and Steven Stamkos obviously have a great line and they score big goals, but at the same time they play great defensively."

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