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Stamkos, Kucherov look to be lethal combination again for Lightning

Forwards aim to pick up where they left off early last season

by Corey Long / NHL.com Correspondent

TAMPA -- Tampa Bay Lightning forwards Steven Stamkos and Nikita Kucherov expressed a desire during the offseason to continue to play on the same line after enjoying success together early last season.

They were on the top line when the Lightning opened training camp Friday and were joined by forward Vladislav Namestnikov. The three quickly tried to pick up where they left off during a spirited practice.

 

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"I had a chance to play with [Kucherov] and [Namestnikov] at the beginning of last year and we had great chemistry," Stamkos said. "Things change from year to year, obviously. But we saw what Kucherov did last year and how great of a player he is. We had some great chemistry, so we'll see what happens."

Stamkos and Kucherov have been the Lightning's most productive players over the past three seasons despite Stamkos missing significant time because of injuries. Kucherov has 99 goals and 216 points over that span, including his first 40-goal season in 2016-17, when he led the Lightning with 85 points and was tied for fifth in the NHL. Stamkos has 85 goals and 156 points over the same period; he had a Lightning-high 43 goals in 2014-15 and 36 in 2015-16.

The line was a hit early last season before Stamkos, who is Lightning captain, had arthroscopic surgery to repair a lateral meniscus tear in his right knee on Nov. 17. Stamkos had nine goals and 20 points, and Kucherov had eight goals and 21 points through 17 games. They were two of the top 10 scorers in the NHL.

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But Stamkos was injured during a 4-3 win at the Detroit Red Wings on Nov. 15, when he fell awkwardly against the boards killing a penalty in the first period.

"I think we just are able to read off each other," Stamkos said. "I think we all are pretty smart hockey players and have speed and skill. With the amount of the success we had early in the year, it just felt like there was no guessing on the ice. We knew if one guy was in trouble, the other guy was going to be close by for support and the other guy was going to be on the other side of the ice. When you have that chemistry, sometimes there's an element of it being natural."

Lightning coach Jon Cooper wasn't ready to anoint the Kucherov-Stamkos-Namestnikov combination as the top line, but it's likely they will open the season together against the Florida Panthers on Oct. 6.

"I'm not sitting here saying those guys are going to be playing together, but [Stamkos] hasn't played in nine months," Cooper said. "He finished his year having some really good chemistry with [Kucherov] and [Namestnikov]. You want guys to feel comfortable, so it's better to put him out there with guys he's played with before. [Preseason] games, we'll see how things play out, but you like to put some guys with guys they are comfortable with and that's what happened [Friday]."

Stamkos is expected to play when the Lightning open their preseason against the Carolina Hurricanes at Amalie Arena on Tuesday (7:30 p.m. ET). Beyond wanting to test his knee, Stamkos would like to get reacclimated with the speed of the game and mentally prepare for the regular season.

"We'll obviously play in the first one and see how [the knee] feels and reacts," Stamkos said. "There's nothing like a game situation. You try to simulate it, [but] you can't. We always put together a plan for the veteran guys in preseason, but I want to play that first game and see how it goes. If I'm feeling great then, yeah, it would be nice to maybe get out to one or two more than I normally would to see how it's going."

Cooper hasn't committed to how much Stamkos will play in the preseason, but he said they would collectively come up with a plan. He said he also understands Stamkos' excitement about returning to camp after a long break and wants to make sure he's able to get the most out of these next three weeks.

"What I've seen in [Stamkos] is something that is really good," Cooper said. "He looks fit, he looks like he has that man strength, and you can tell that he's excited. Everybody has that excitement in the first couple of days of camp, but I know he's been training really hard to get back to this point. He's walking around like a man on a mission, and it's really good to see."

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