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Lightning's Kucherov stealing the show

Tampa Bay forward leads NHL in playoff goals

by Tom Gulitti @tomgulittinhl / Staff Writer

TAMPA -- In an Eastern Conference Final filled with established names, Nikita Kucherov's rising star is threatening to steal the spotlight, and a trip to the Stanley Cup Final, for the Tampa Bay Lightning.

Kucherov did it again in Game 5 on Sunday with two goals and an assist in a 4-3 overtime win against the Pittsburgh Penguins that moved the Lightning within one victory of reaching the Cup Final for the second year in a row.

Each of Kucherov's goals tied the game. His second one, which came on a wraparound with 3:16 remaining in regulation, forced overtime. He then helped set up Tyler Johnson's deflection goal 53 seconds into sudden death that gave the Lightning a 3-2 lead in the best-of-7 series.

Video: TBL@PIT, Gm5: Kucherov tallies two goals in Game 5

Game 6 is at Amalie Arena in Tampa on Tuesday (8 p.m. ET; NBCSN, CBC, TVA Sports).

"He's always one of those guys that finds the right spot at the right time," Lightning defenseman Anton Stralman said. "He's one of those guys that it's just in him, I guess, to find those spots."

Though Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin rightfully get a lot of the attention for the Penguins, and the playing status of Lightning center Steven Stamkos is a daily story, it's Kucherov, 22, who has made the biggest name for himself during the Stanley Cup Playoffs. 

If the Lightning go on to win the Cup, his name could include Conn Smythe Trophy winner. 

Of Kucherov's NHL-leading 11 playoff goals, six have tied games, including three in the third period that forced overtime. In Game 3 of the second round against the New York Islanders, Kucherov forced overtime by scoring with 38.4 seconds left in the third period of an eventual 5-4 Lightning victory. In Game 4 of the series he scored 7:49 into the third of what became a 2-1 overtime win.

"I truly believe when you're a rising star in this League, as he is, it just seems the bigger the moment, the bigger they rise to the occasion," Lightning coach Jon Cooper said. "He's proving that last year wasn't a fluke and he's just a gifted, skilled, determined player and he's really a pleasure to coach."

Kucherov's 10 goals in the playoffs last season were third in the League and he was a big part of the Lightning's run to the Cup Final. With Stamkos, who is the Lightning's biggest-name star and captain, sidelined following surgery April 4 to remove a blood clot from near his right collarbone, Kucherov has elevated his game to another level this year.

He is the third NHL player to score 10 or more goals in multiple playoff years before reaching his 23rd birthday, joining Jeremy Roenick (1990 and 1992 with the Chicago Blackhawks) and Malkin (2008 and 2009 with the Penguins), according to the Elias Sports Bureau. 

"We always talk about his goals and everything about that, but he's plus-17 in the playoffs," Cooper said. "That [shows] you're not just being responsible and scoring on one end. That means you're being responsible on the other end too, and I don't think guys like him get enough credit for how they play the whole ice. And he's a big-time player for us."

Kucherov, who will turn 23 on June 17, had nine goals in 10 games in the first two rounds this year. It probably was unrealistic to expect him to continue that torrid pace with the Penguins focused on shutting him down in the conference final. He didn't have a goal in the first four games but he had four assists.

Video: PIT@TBL, Gm4: Sustr scores off Kucherov's nice dish

"He's been getting points," Lightning right wing Ryan Callahan said. "He's been involved. Obviously he's one of the key guys that they're trying to cover and keep off the score sheet. But it seems like [Kucherov] always finds a way to come through in these big moments."

He did it again Sunday when it appeared the Lightning might come up a goal short, picking up the rebound of Johnson's shot and swooping behind the net before slamming the puck in around the right post to tie the game 3-3.

"It doesn't matter who scores the goals," Kucherov said. "The last game somebody else scored the goals. The most important thing is we get the [wins] and we win the games and we play with structure."

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