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Kucherov is a difference-maker for Lightning

Forward scored twice in Game 1 vs. Red Wings, has developed into one of NHL's best players

by Nicholas J. Cotsonika @cotsonika / Columnist

TAMPA -- Nikita Kucherov plays for the Tampa Bay Lightning. On his days off, he can go outside in the Florida sun. But at least sometimes, he stays inside, boots up his laptop and watches video.

He studies goal-scorers, like Washington Capitals captain Alex Ovechkin and Chicago Blackhawks right wing Patrick Kane, and how they slow down the game, how they find openings to make plays, how they shoot.

"It's just fun to watch them," Kucherov said.

It was fun to watch Kucherov on Wednesday at Amalie Arena, unless you were the Detroit Red Wings. While captain Steven Stamkos sat out because of a blood clot, Kucherov scored two goals and assisted on Alex Killorn's game-winning goal when the Lightning earned a 3-2 victory and 1-0 lead in the best-of-7 Eastern Conference First Round series.

Video: DET@TBL, Gm1: Kucherov's goals spark Lightning

The first goal was pretty. On the rush, Tyler Johnson passed from left to right, and Kucherov handcuffed Red Wings goaltender Jimmy Howard, ripping a one-timer from the right circle that rocketed high into the net.

The second was gritty. Kucherov went to the goalmouth and jammed in his own rebound.

"I'm still amazed at the things he does," Johnson said. "It's even nicer to be on his line and see it firsthand. But he's definitely one of the top players in the League."

Yes, that's right. Kucherov is one of the top players in the NHL.

He had 29 goals and 65 points last season, then 10 goals and 22 points in the Stanley Cup Playoffs as the Lightning advanced to the Final. Only Johnson (13 goals, 23 points) and Kane (11, 23) finished with more than he did.

He had 30 goals and 66 points this season. Stamkos led the Lightning in goals with 36, but Kucherov led them in points, with two more than Stamkos.

"He's finding a way to rise to the occasion in the big moments and I think that's what makes the good players great," Lightning coach Jon Cooper said.

Kucherov was not a high pick. The Lightning selected him in the second round (No. 58) of the 2011 NHL Draft. He has never been big. He's listed at 5-foot-11, 178 pounds.

Video: DET@TBL, Gm1: Killorn's midair goal puts Bolts ahead

As a rookie in 2013-14, Kucherov had nine goals and 18 points in 52 games. He was a healthy scratch for two games in the playoffs, when the Lightning were swept by the Montreal Canadiens in the first round.

But he was 20 years old then, and he had to learn to play a complete game and earn the trust of his coaches. When Cooper challenged him, he responded.

"He made a choice," Cooper said. "He's got the offensive talent. You want to play more, you've got to play in your own end. And he's learned how to do that."

He became a part of the dynamic "Triplets" line with Johnson and Ondrej Palat last season, and he stood out on his own this season when Cooper broke up the line after Johnson and Palat missed time because of injuries.

"It's what you have in here," Cooper said, patting his chest. "That's what shows you what he has. That's why guys rise above. Because he's got passion. He's got heart. And you watch so many players that have all the ability and they don't pan out because they don't have that.

"I truly believe that slackers don't rise to the top. The guys that work and want it eventually do. You couple that with his skill set …"

And this is what you get.

"You can look at his skill set and say, 'That's pretty amazing,'" Johnson said. "There's not too many guys in the League that can shoot the puck, pass and do the stickhandling like he does. But I think the biggest thing that amazes me about him is, he has all that skill, but he still works harder than anybody. He's a guy that works really hard off the ice. After practice, he's always the last guy to get off the ice."

One reason Kucherov doesn't have a higher profile is that he plays in the shadow of Stamkos and Johnson in Tampa Bay. Another is that he's Russian and speaks with a thick accent. He can express himself relatively well in English, as he did Wednesday when the cameras and voice recorders surrounded him, but he isn't a go-to quote.

But his play and production should speak for themselves, and at 22, he has room to grow. In December, when Kucherov had six goals in six games, Ovechkin told the Tampa Bay Times: "I think easily he can score 50."

Maybe Ovechkin was watching video of Kucherov. Reminded Wednesday of Ovechkin's comment, Kucherov laughed.

"I don't know," Kucherov said sheepishly. "Maybe one day."

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