Bolts’ Kucherov not let­ting Stars take him off his game

The Standard (St. Catharines) - - SPORTS - DIANA C. NEARHOS TAMPA BAY TIMES

The Dal­las Stars did their scout­ing re­port on Nikita Kucherov. Their game plan, like the New York Islanders’ be­fore them, ap­pears to be to stick on him, try to get un­der his skin.

Kucherov took a big hit from Jamie Benn, a high stick from Mat­tias Jan­mark, then crashed into the boards bear­ing the brunt of Jamie Olek­siak’s 225pound frame. That was only in the first pe­riod of Game 2. He ended up go­ing to the locker room, he said to re­place a bro­ken vi­sor.

“Tough start, I guess,” Kucherov said with some­thing of a chuckle. “But it’s a play­off game, you have to play. It doesn’t mat­ter what hap­pens.”

In the sec­ond pe­riod, Kucherov took two hits within 30 sec­onds from Corey Perry, then Ja­son Dickinson. That might have worked against Kucherov in the past — he’s let his frus­tra­tion out be­fore — but it’s not work­ing in these play­offs.

Also in that same first pe­riod, Kucherov put two shots on net and made two beau­ti­ful passes to set up goals. Tampa Bay coach Jon Cooper said, when Kucherov was a lit­tle younger, he might have been con­cerned about him get­ting frus­trated. Not this year. “The at­ten­tion he gets is un­par­al­leled,” he said. “You’re get­ting that at­ten­tion for a rea­son. It’s be­cause you’re pretty darn good. But you can’t let them see you sweat.”

When the Islanders tried some­thing sim­i­lar, the coach said he hoped they would keep do­ing it be­cause Kucherov re­sponded well.

It’s al­most like, in­stead of re­spond­ing in kind, Kucherov is tak­ing it as a chal­lenge to get back at them by up­ping his game.

“Last year, we saw his frus­tra­tion level and that was the epit­ome of that side,” TV an­a­lyst Brian Eng­blom said. “(Game 2) was the epit­ome of the other side.”

In last year’s play­offs, Kucherov was sus­pended for a hit on Colum­bus’s Markus Nu­ti­vaara. He tripped the de­fence­man, then hit him in the head when he tried to get up. This year, Kucherov’s emo­tions flared in the Light­ning’s Game 3 loss to the Islanders, when he slashed Jean-gabriel Pageau as the for­ward skated in on an empty net. It wasn’t his best mo­ment of the play­offs, but it was a far cry from the year be­fore.

Kucherov is no stranger to smashed sticks. He gets an­gry with him­self for not liv­ing up to his own per­fec­tion­ism. Eng­blom pointed out Kucherov wants to go out and score or set up a goal on ev­ery shift, which is im­pos­si­ble.

“At times, that has been detri­men­tal for him,” Eng­blom said. “Some­times it takes that one cathar­tic mo­ment to go ‘OK, some­thing has to give.’ He didn’t have to be told by a coach or any­body af­ter that. He knew it.”

It’s hard to pre­dict what Kucherov will do be­cause he sees a step or two ahead of most play­ers. That’s hard to play against, so op­po­nents try to trip him up men­tally as much as any­thing they can do phys­i­cally.

Kucherov’s two as­sists Mon­day gave him 28 points in the play­offs, set­ting a fran­chise record. He has been pro­duc­tive even if he hasn’t made the same “what just hap­pened” plays he’s daz­zled fans with the past two reg­u­lar sea­sons. There’s not as much room for those in the play­offs, where risky plays can be­come turnovers and goals the other way.

The Light­ning wanted to play a more dis­ci­plined game this year. They wanted to be less de­pen­dent on their skill.

Kucherov is do­ing both of those things.

Nikita Kucherov

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