TORONTO -- Nikita Kucherov embraced playing the villain role for Team Hughes during the 2024 Honda (U.S.)/Rogers (Canada) NHL All-Star Game at Scotiabank Arena on Saturday.

The Tampa Bay Lightning forward seemed to thrive off being booed by the sellout crowd of 18,819, getting a goal and an assist in a 6-5 shootout loss to Team Matthews in the semifinals. Kucherov left Toronto with fond memories despite the loss -- and the booing.

“I loved it,” Kucherov said. “I’m here to have fun and I’m sure the fans enjoyed it. It was a blast to be here around the best players and be on the ice with them.”

The rivalry between the Lightning and Toronto Maple Leafs has been building in intensity after the Atlantic Division foes met in the Stanley Cup Playoffs the past two seasons, with each winning once. So, as Tampa Bay’s lone representative at the 2024 NHL All-Star Weekend, Kucherov became an obvious target of the Toronto fans.

The booing began when Kucherov struggled and finished last in the 2024 NHL All-Star Skills presented by DraftKings Sportsbook at Scotiabank Arena on Friday and resumed when Kucherov was introduced in Team Hughes’ lineup on Saturday.

Undeterred, Kucherov waved to the fans to egg them on.

“He loved it,” said Vancouver Canucks coach Rick Tocchet, the coach of Team Hughes. “I said to ‘Kuch,’ ‘Everybody hates a winner, I guess.’ The guy, I think he could be one of the best pressure guys in the game the last eight, nine years. Any time there’s an overtime, any time you’ve got to score a goal, his fingerprints are all over it. I just marvel at the way he thinks the game.”

A two-time Stanley Cup winner with Tampa Bay (2020, 2021) who won the Hart Trophy as the NHL’s most valuable player in 2018-19, Kucherov leads the League with 85 points (32 goals, 53 assists) in 49 games this season, one ahead of Nathan MacKinnon of the Colorado Avalanche. The 30-year-old showed off his world-class skill Saturday playing with Canucks forward Elias Pettersson and Anaheim Ducks forward Frank Vatrano.

“He makes the game easy,” Vatrano said. “You’ve just got to get open and get him the puck, so that was fun, for sure.”

HGS@MAT: Kucherov scores on breakaway for early lead

Kucherov gave Team Hughes a 1-0 lead by beating goalie Jake Oettinger between the pads on a breakaway 1:19 into the first period. He then helped set up Pettersson for a goal that tied the score 3-3 at 4:18 of the second period.

“Two skilled guys and we got a couple goals there and had some cool chemistry going,” Kucherov said. “It was fun.”

Kucherov heard more boos when he lined up to shoot second for Team Hughes in the shootout. He again waved to the fans, encouraging them to boo louder.

The boos turned to cheers when goalie Igor Shesterkin knocked away Kucherov’s attempt with his catching glove, prompting Kucherov to wave to the crowd again.

“He should’ve let that one in,” Kucherov said of his fellow Russian. “That would be fun. But he’s a [heck] of a goalie, tough to score against.”

Although Kucherov’s fifth All-Star Game appearance didn’t end the way he liked, he appreciated having another chance to experience all that comes with the event.

“Just the time being with the boys and enjoying it and talking in the room with the guys and just the atmosphere,” he said. “I think the fans were unbelievable here. The crowd was into it, and I liked it.”

Kucherov will see that crowd again when the Lightning visit the Maple Leafs on April 4, and, potentially, in the playoffs. His focus now will return to helping Tampa qualify.

The Lightning (27-18-5) won eight of their final nine games before their break for All-Star Weekend to move into third in the Atlantic Division, one point ahead of the Maple Leafs and Detroit Red Wings. Tampa Bay resumes play with a four-game road trip, beginning against Shesterkin and the New York Rangers on Wednesday (7 p.m. ET; MAX, TNT, TVAS).

“We had a good little stretch going and we just have to keep going and just stay consistent with our game plan and everybody’s game,” he said. “Our goal is to make the playoffs. That’s the most important thing.”

Kucherov is also looking forward to continuing his seesaw battle with MacKinnon for the NHL points lead. The Lightning host MacKinnon and the Avalanche on Feb. 15.

“He makes me better,” Kucherov said. “I just try to go there and have fun and try to help my team as much as I can. It’s always fun when you go against the best player in the world and try to be on the same level.”

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