The Tampa Bay Lightning have once again advanced to the second round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs, as they look to reclaim the cup as the defending champions. Tampa Bay beat their rival Florida Panthers in six games in what was arguably the most entertaining series of the playoffs so far. The Panthers concluded their run after a fantastic season, which saw them finish fourth place league wide, ahead of rival neighbours across the state. The Lightning, on the other hand, (who finished the year in eight place) league wide, had a solid year led by Andrei Vasilevsky, however, with the season-long absence of Nikita Kucherov and the 18 games in which Steven Stamkos missed, adding to the team’s overall scoring dip amongst others, Tampa Bay needed to step up early and het back into championship mode, and they did just that.
Losing Kucherov for the entirety of the 2020-21 season was a tough pill to swallow for Jon Cooper and the Lightning roster, but fortunately for the Panthers, Kucherov was ready to go for game one. When a player is out such a long timespan as a result of an injury, it may take some time to get back into the swing of things, but this was clearly not the case for Kucherov. In the winger’s first game of the year, he exploded with a two-goal performance, resulting in three points over the Florida Panthers. In the following two contests, Kucherov tallied an assist in each game before exploding yet again with a four-point performance in game four of the series. He was finally held off the scoresheet in game five, as the Florida Panthers managed to force a game six. The Lightning shut down Florida 4-0 in a do-or-die game six, in which Kucherov recorded another two assists. That saw Tampa Bay advance to the second round. After the first round of the playoffs, The Russian superstar leads all skaters Wirth 11 points, as he is clearly making up for lost time.
During the 2020 postseason, he led the league in points with 34 in 25 games, which was the highest total since Evgeni Malkin scored 36 in 2008-2009. That was also his Conn Smythe winning playoff run. Despite pulling off one of the most successful playoff campaigns in the modern era, Kucherov did not win the Conn Smythe award as the playoff MVP and deservedly so. The award went to his teammate Victor Hedman, who had one of the best offensive performances by a defensemen in the modern era. He did so while skating just as good defensively within his own zone. After missing out on the award last season, Kucherov doesn’t seem to be missing a beat this time around. His 1.83 PPG% during the first round puts him on pace for 45.75 in 25 games, the same amount of games he played in last year, beating Dallas to win the Stanley Cup championship. While maintaining this pace is a stretch, should he do it, it would be the second-highest point total in playoff history behind the Great One himself.
While I am not predicting or claiming that Kucherov will keep on playing at his current pace, the way in which he’s managed to bounce back, especially after missing the season, to playing at a record-breaking rate proves that the Lightning sensation is on a mission and is only picking up where he left off.