Like pretty much every other player on the Lightning roster, the 2018-19 playoffs ended up being a very forgettable experience for Nikita Kucherov.
During their four-game loss to the Blue Jackets, Kucherov managed just two points (both in their Game 4 loss), zero goals, and even missed a game due to a suspension for an ugly hit late in their Game 2 loss. It was a dreadfully disappointing end to a season where Kucherov had put together one of the finest regular season performances of the modern era for a record-setting team. He finished the season with 128 points (the most points the league had seen in 23 years) and took home the Hart Trophy (MVP) and Ted Lindsay Award (most outstanding player as voted by the players) on a team that won 62 regular season games.
But because of their inability to win even a single playoff against the No. 8 seed, it will mostly end up being a footnote to the season.
All of them — from Kucherov on down the roster — had to redeem themselves this postseason and flip the script on a team that was starting to become more known more for postseason shortcomings instead of for what it actually is — one of the league’s elite teams, driven by some of the best players in the world.
Entering Game 4 of the 2020 Stanley Cup Final Friday night (8 p.m. ET, NBC; livestream), Kucherov and the Lightning are in the process of getting that redemption.
They hold a 2-1 series lead and have looked like the far superior team these past two games.
Kucherov has been at the center of most of it.
His playmaking was on display in the Lightning’s Game 2 win by setting up a pair of power play goals to help power their fast start. In Game 3, he pounced on a Miro Heiskanen turnover in the neutral zone and buried a quick shot behind Anton Khudobin on a breakaway to help open the floodgates in a 5-2 win.
For the playoffs, he is already up to 30 points (seven goals, 23 assists) in 22 games, which is currently tied for the fourth highest total in a single postseason over the past 20 years, trailing only Evgeni Malkin (36) and Sidney Crosby (31) in 2008-09, and Washington’s Evgeny Kuznetsov (32) in 2017-18.
It’s not just that he is generating points that stands out.
He is driving the most dominant line in the league this postseason alongside Brayden Point and Ondrej Palat. His underlying numbers are also off the charts. Of the 98 skaters that have logged at least 200 minutes of 5-on-5 hockey this postseason, Kucherov ranks second in total shot attempt share (63.6 percent), second in goals for percentage (76 percent), second in expected goals percentage (68 percent), fifth in scoring chance share, and second in high-danger scoring chances (67.9 percent). In most of those categories the only players that rank ahead of him are either Tampa defenseman Victor Hedman, or Palat, who is one of Kucherov’s current linemates.
Then we get to the consistency aspect of this, and just how steady his overall production has been.
There is no more overrated and overused word in hockey than “consistency,” at least as it relates to goal and point production. Every player in the league is inconsistent to a certain degree, and even the best players tend to score their goals and points in bunches. The season is a mountain range full of peaks and valleys. But Kucherov, for a few months now, has been residing on one of those mountains.
He has not gone more than two consecutive games without a point since the middle of January, and there was only one stretch of games this entire season where he went more than two games without finding the scoresheet — and even that was only a three-game stretch.
He also has eight multi-point games this postseason, and when you exclude the three Round-Robin games before the start of the playoffs that means he has recorded at least two points in more than 40 percent of his games this postseason.
That is a stunning level of production and dominance.
Just looking at recent Conn Smythe Trophy winners, Ryan O’Reilly had multiple points in only 20 percent of his postseason games for the Blues last season. Alex Ovechkin was at 33 percent in 2018. Sidney Crosby had multiple points in 33 percent (2016-17) and 20 percent (2015-16) in his most recent Conn Smythe seasons.
The Lightning have been one of the league’s best teams and Kucherov has been one of the best players for six years now. But because of the way their postseasons have ended there has always been that “yeah, but…” following them around, especially after last year’s dismal First Round showing.
They all needed to rewrite the story around themselves.
They are not exactly where they want to be just yet (they still have two more wins to get), but they have put themselves in a great position to finally accomplish their ultimate goal.