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Chemistry undeniable for Stamkos, Kucherov

Lightning captain compares current linemate to former Tampa Bay star Martin St. Louis

by Dan Rosen @drosennhl / Senior Writer

TAMPA -- Steven Stamkos feels like he goes back in time whenever he steps on the ice with Nikita Kucherov. 

"I think [playing with] Kuch is probably the closest for me personally to having that chemistry [that I had] with Marty [St. Louis]," Stamkos, the Tampa Bay Lightning captain, said. "It's a tough thing to find in this League, that chemistry."

Stamkos and St. Louis found their chemistry quickly and were magical on the same line, an elite righty-lefty combination that combined 667 points (287 goals, 380 assists) from 2009-13. 

Stamkos and Kucherov, also a righty-lefty combination on the same line, could be just as effective with Kucherov being the new St. Louis. 

"It's just easy when you're out there with him," Stamkos said. "He's one of the best players in the League."

Kucherov, 24, has goals in each of the Lightning's first five games, becoming the first player in franchise history to accomplish that feat. He has eight points (five goals, three assists) and Stamkos has seven points (one goal, six assists, including assists on three of Kucherov's goals.

The production is a continuation of what they started last season, when Kucherov and Stamkos combined for 41 points (17 goals, 24 assists) in 17 games before Stamkos was lost for the season with a knee injury.

Video: PIT@TBL: Stamkos scores PPG, ties club record

The Lightning (4-1-0) have won three straight games. They begin a three-game road trip against the Detroit Red Wings at Little Caesars Arena on Monday (7:30 p.m. ET; SN1, TVA Sports, SUN, FS-D, NHL.TV).

"I saw [Stamkos] play with St. Louis, so I know what to expect from him," Kucherov said. "I know what he's going to do in certain situations in the zone. It's all in my head. I remember always St. Louis talked about little things and I listened to him. I have seen a lot of highlights with [St. Louis] and Stammer so I know what to expect from Stammer."

Kucherov regrets never getting a chance to play with the Lightning when they had St. Louis and a healthy Stamkos. 

"It was my dream to play with them once," he said.

He instead made his NHL debut with Tampa Bay on Nov. 25, 2013, two weeks after Stamkos broke his leg against the Boston Bruins. The day Stamkos announced he was coming back, March 5, 2014, was also the day the Lightning traded St. Louis to the New York Rangers.

However, Kucherov said the highlights he would watch of Stamkos and St. Louis playing together stuck out to him.

"Sometimes, plays they did, I feel what they did it was going through my mind too, that I would do the same thing," Kucherov said. "So when they put us [he and Stamkos] together, we had that chemistry."

Video: TBL@FLA: Kucherov cashes in on loose puck in front

St. Louis, who retired after the 2014-15 season with 1,033 points in 1,134 games, said he enjoys watching Kucherov play, especially with Stamkos, because he feels like he's watching a younger version of himself.

"We have a lot of similarities," St. Louis said. "He's really good coming down the right side and being deceptive, understanding that he's playing with Stamkos. He's always aware of where Stammer is." 

St. Louis said it's key to have that sense when you're playing with Stamkos because he typically wants to have the puck once he gets into the zone so he can make plays. Stamkos used to be more of a shooter and Kucherov the playmaker, but St. Louis said the roles have reversed.

"Kucherov knows when he gets in the zone he'll probably have nothing so he has to do something to help Stammer when he comes in," St. Louis said. "He's got to play for the next three or four seconds a certain way so he can put the puck on Stammer's stick. He's got such a great feel for the game and where everyone is on the ice. I feel that was my strength. He's the right player to play with Stammer."

Kucherov, much like St. Louis did, has also grown into an elite player early in his NHL career. He scored 40 goals last season, up from 30 in 2015-16. He scored 32 goals in 56 games after Stamkos sustained his knee injury. 

Kucherov had more of a shot-first mentality last season and finished with a career-high 246 shots on goal, up 37 from the season prior in three fewer games. 

Part of his spike in production, and in shots on goal, had to do with the fact that the Lightning needed more from him with Stamkos out. But it also had to do with comfort and confidence, two things St. Louis remembers feeling when the puck started to go in for him early in his career.

Video: Caley Chelios on the Tampa Bay Lightning defense

The puck is still going in for Kucherov this season, and he's even averaging more shots on goal per game (3.6) than he did last season (3.3). 

"Now that he's got his own identity and he's got a little swagger he's starting to shoot more," St. Louis said. "He can be like, 'Hey, I can do this on my own too. I've earned that right of being a little more selfish.'" 

Kucherov, who admittedly has had to shake off his natural pass-first mentality, said he worked on his shot all summer. He continues to do so before and after practice. 

Not surprisingly, St. Louis used to do the same thing.

"It was really noticeable this summer when [Kucherov] showed up here in Tampa two months before the season was starting," Lightning coach Jon Cooper said. "Normally, that doesn't happen. Tampa is a little hot so it's understandable why guys don't come back too early, but he did. He was at the rink every single day working on his game. That's how the great players become elite players. That's what he's done. He is an elite player."

St. Louis was too. Stamkos was a big part of it. History is repeating itself in Tampa Bay.

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