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Conference Final

Lightning top line leads way into Eastern Final against Capitals

Kucherov, Stamkos, Miller break down their playoff dominance

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

It was the type of play that has become exemplary of the top line for the Tampa Bay Lightning.

Right wing Nikita Kucherov skated behind the net and forced a turnover by Boston Bruins defenseman Charlie McAvoy. Left wing J.T. Miller, acquired by the Lightning prior to the NHL Trade Deadline, got the loose puck and quickly passed it to center Steven Stamkos in the right circle.

Stamkos scored off a one-timer past goalie Tuukka Rask for the game-tying goal at 12:56 of the third period in Game 4 of the Eastern Conference Second Round on Friday.

 

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The Lightning won the game 4-3 in overtime and the best-of-7 series in five games. A big reason was that goal and the Miller-Stamkos-Kucherov line, which has combined for 29 points (11 goals, 18 assists) in 10 postseason games by using a mix of speed, power and intelligence to help Tampa Bay advance to the Eastern Conference Final for the third time in four seasons. The Lightning will play the Washington Capitals, with Game 1 at Tampa Bay on Friday (8 p.m. ET; NBCSN, TVAS).

"[Miller, Stamkos and Kucherov] see the game at an elite level, and I believe you have to do that to be able to play together," Lightning coach Jon Cooper said. "Miller will go in there, get in the corners and the net-front, whereas [Stamkos and Kucherov] are a little bit more of the playmaking, vision and shooter types."

Video: BOS@TBL, Gm5: Miller nets PPG off give-and-go play

The line played a dominant role in a first-round series win against the New Jersey Devils, with seven goals and 20 points in five games. It had four goals and nine points in a five-game series win against the Bruins in the second round.

It all started March 10, when Cooper moved Miller to left wing with Stamkos and Kucherov with the Lightning trailing the Montreal Canadiens by a goal to start the third period. Tyler Johnson was centering Stamkos and Kucherov to begin the game, one of a few combinations Cooper tried with unsatisfactory results.

Less than seven minutes remained in the third period when Miller slammed into Canadiens defenseman Jordie Benn behind the Montreal net and knocked the puck to Stamkos, who fed Kucherov for the tying goal at 13:43 of the third. Kucherov scored the game-winner in a shootout of a 3-2 win.

The line has been a fixture ever since. Miller had 13 points (eight goals, five assists), Kucherov had 13 points (six goals, seven assists), and Stamkos had eight assists in the final 14 games of the regular season.

Video: TBL@BOS, Gm4: Stamkos nets one-timer to tie it

The Lightning acquired Miller and defenseman Ryan McDonagh from the New York Rangers on Feb. 26 in a trade for forwards Vladislav Namestnikov and Brett Howden, defenseman Libor Hajek, a first-round pick in the 2018 NHL Draft, and a conditional second-round pick in the 2019 NHL Draft.

The three members of the line shared their thoughts on each other with NHL.com:

 

J.T. Miller (left wing)

"[Stamkos] shoots a little more than [Kucherov]. When [Stamkos] is open and his stick ready, you've got to find him. When we're going, we're competing and we're playing hard, but it's not always flashy. I'm north-south. I try to play fast, try to shoot the puck when I can, be physical for them, get them pucks back so that we can establish some offensive-zone time."

Miller had 18 points (10 goals, eight assists) with the Lightning in 19 games following the trade. Cooper said he likes that Miller is left-handed so it gives the line a different dynamic on face-offs because Stamkos is right-handed. Miller ranks fifth on the Lightning in face-off wins (40-of-82, 48.8 percent); Stamkos is fourth (48-of-89, 53.9 percent).

"When I'm with them most of my success comes around the net, so I have to be aware," he said. "Something I've learned with them is they're always kind of one or two plays ahead of the game. They're ready to make that pass, so you have to be ready before you think you should be. When around the net, you have to have your stick on the ice and be ready because you never know when it's going to hit your tape."

Video: TBL@NJD, Gm4: Miller pots Kucherov's dish to tie game

 

Steven Stamkos (center)

On Kucherov: "He's a world-class talent and one of the best at making plays. He's so deceptive and as a defender you're not sure what he's going to do. Having played with him for a while, we have some idea what he wants to do with the puck, so that's a good thing. [Kucherov] and I really think the game similarly and try to make the plays when they're there by controlling the puck. He's a dual threat because he can shoot and pass the puck as well as anyone."

Stamkos had his NHL bests in assists (59) and plus-minus rating (plus-18) in 78 games.

On Miller: "When [Miller] came in, he added an element to our line that was very different with his physicality. Not necessarily big hits, which he does, but controlling and protecting the puck in the offensive zone and then adding the skill set he brings. He's a guy who's not afraid to go into the dirty areas, has great hands in those areas, and has a very heavy shot and high hockey IQ. I think he just adds that element of being able to play down low, and play with the puck."

Video: TBL@NJD, Gm3: Stamkos buries Kucherov's feed for PPG

 

Nikita Kucherov (right wing)

"I don't think there's any magic; we're just trying to play the right way, support each other on both sides of the ice," Kucherov said. "We have an understanding of where everyone is supposed to be and I know where they want the puck. They know where I want the puck, so we're are able to make it work."

Kucherov, who finished third in the NHL with 100 points (39 goals, 61 assists), set NHL career highs in assists, points, shots (279), average ice time (19:49) and takeaways (66).

Video: TBL@BOS, Gm4: Kucherov blasts one-timer for PPG

He said Miller added a new dynamic.

"Miller is a big guy, very powerful and he plays the two-way game," Kucherov said. "When he goes to the corners you're pretty sure he's going to come up with the puck. He has skill and can handle the puck, but he's not afraid to go in front of the net, get position to make plays, and he's got a very good shot. He's been a great teammate, wants to win and wants to contribute."

***

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