“It means a lot,” Kucherov said. “Not many teams have done that before, and to be one of them is huge. We’re really happy with the result, but we still have more important games ahead.”
This was not the boisterous, almost-defiant Kucherov who was shirtless at the podium after the Lightning repeated as Stanley Cup champions last season and asked the media if it was, “Ready for the main event?” before an unforgettable diatribe that combined praise for his teammates with an airing of grievances like it was his personal Festivus.
Maybe that Kucherov will make another appearance if Tampa Bay completes its three-peat bid by defeating the Colorado Avalanche in the Cup Final, which begins at Ball Arena in Denver on Wednesday (8 pm ET; ESPN+, ABC, CBC, SN, TVAS) . For now, Kucherov retains his usual persona of a reserved-but-driven star forward who is one of the main reasons the Lightning are the first team to reach the Stanley Cup Final in three straight seasons since the Edmonton Oilers from 1983-85.
Kucherov leads Tampa Bay with 23 points (seven goals, 16 assists) in 17 games in the Stanley Cup Playoffs after leading the League with 34 points (seven assists, 27 assists) in 25 playoff games in 2020 and 32 points (eight goals, 24 assists) in 23 playoff games last season. The 28-year-old won the Hart Trophy as the NHL’s most valuable player in 2018-19 when he led the League with 128 points (41 goals, 87 assists) in 82 games.
But he’s made his biggest mark during the Lightning’s remarkable run of 11 straight playoff series wins.
“He’s been an electrifying player,” coach Jon Cooper said. “He’s got two Stanley Cup rings. I think when teams go that far each team has those type of players on them, and that’s what ‘Kuch’ is. He’s a unique, special talent, but anytime when you’re the last team standing , there’s a player on each team or maybe two [who is a] gamebreaker, and he’s one of them for us.”
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Arizona Coyotes coach Andre Tourigny sensed Kucherov had the potential to be one of those players shortly after he joined Rouyn-Noranda of the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League in a trade with Quebec during the 2011-12 season. Tampa Bay’s second-round pick (No. 58) in the 2011 NHL Draft, Kucherov was 18 years old and in his first season playing in North America and had trouble getting consistent ice time under Quebec coach Patrick Roy.
The trade to Rouyn-Noranda, where Tourigny was coach and the general manager, gave Kucherov the chance to unleash his potential. He had 53 points (26 goals, 27 assists) in 27 regular-season games and 24 points (nine goals 15 assists) in 14 playoff games that season to help the Huskies reach the QMJHL semifinals before losing to Halifax, the eventual league and Memorial Cup champion.
“He was seeing things no one else was seeing,” Tourigny said. “He was thinking the game way ahead of everybody. When we had a discussion, him and I, it was really next level. He was not like other junior players where you teach fundamentals and stuff. He was really seeing the game with an IQ way above everybody, and he was really fun to coach.”
Although Kucherov struggled with his English at times, Tourigny said he spoke it “good enough to communicate.” One thing that stood out in their conversations was Kucherov’s humility.
“Really humble,” Tourigny said. “He wants his play to speak. He doesn’t want to attract all the attention. He wants it by his play, not by him talking.”
What was also immediately evident to Tourigny was Kucherov’s competitive nature, which was a positive and a negative at times.
“I could see how competitive he was, how smart he was, how much a student of a game he was and how much determination he had to be an elite player,” Tourigny said. “But he had a really short leash on himself in how he wanted to perform and when he was not performing, he was really losing his mind and becoming emotional and was really hard on himself.”
That trait carried into Kucherov’s professional career, which began the following season after a short stint with Syracuse in the American Hockey League. lightning captain Steven Stamkos remember Kucherov being, “a quiet kid, didn’t speak much English” when he arrived in the NHL.
Kucherov was using Rosetta Stone to help improve his English, but he was also working incessantly to improve his game.
“You could see the skill was there, but there’s so many players that come over and have skill and it just doesn’t translate to anything,” Stamkos said. “The thing that sticks out with him was the work ethic and just the ability to have the confidence to try things.”
Playing on their “Triplets” line with forwards Ondrej Palat and Tyler Johnson, Kucherov helped the Lightning reach the 2015 Stanley Cup Final before losing to the Chicago Blackhawks. He had 22 points (10 goals, 12 assists) in 26 playoff games.
But it took until 2020 to finally break through and win the Cup.
The Lightning reached the Eastern Conference Final in 2016 and 2018 and lost Game 7 of each series. Then, after winning the Presidents’ Trophy as the NHL leader with 62 wins and 128 points during the 2018-19 regular season, Tampa Bay was swept in the first round of the playoffs by the Columbus Blue Jackets. Kucherov was suspended for Game 3 of the series for boarding against defenseman Markus Nutivaara late in a 5-1 loss in Game 2.
That sweep was a turning point for Kucherov and the Lightning, who have not lost a playoff series since.
“You look at the frustration in all of us in that series and ‘Kuch’ was one of them that he got suspended one of the games out of frustration,” Cooper said. “Now, does that say that moment changed him? I think there were moments a little before that, moments after that, that have all come to fruition to what we have as the player today and that’s just growth. He’s really, really grown. “
The vision and creativity to make plays others might not try that Tourigny saw in Kucherov during his QMJHL days are what make him special in the NHL. Calm amidst chaos, Kucherov sometimes makes it appear effortless, such as his one-glance backhand pass to set up Ross Colton‘s winning goal with 3.8 seconds left in a 2-1 victory against the Florida Panthers in Game 2 of the second round, and his one-touch backhand feed to Palat for the winning goal with 41.6 seconds remaining in a 3-2 victory in Game 3 against the Rangers.
“Part of it what makes him stand out is the casual nature with which he can play in a very intense game,” said ESPN analyst and former NHL forward Dominic Moore. “I think people observe that in him, the way he moves, the way he plays. … It just looks like that, like nonchalant. At times, at brief times, it can work against him, but more often than not it ends up being a clutch performance for the Lightning.”
Tourigny warns that there’s a fierce competitor behind that demeanor, though.
“There’s nothing casual about what he expects from himself and what he wants to do,” Tourigny said. “He’ll give kind of a no-look pass or he looks casual, but he’s ready for his battles. He’s really competitive. Nothing casual about the way he expects himself to perform.”
Kucherov has stepped up his play since Brayden Point sustained a lower-body injury in Game 7 of the first round against Toronto Maple Leafs; he has 15 points (five goals, 10 assists) in 10 games to help Tampa Bay go 8-2 without its No. 1 center, who could return for Game 1 against Colorado. After the Lightning lost the first two games to the Rangers, Kucherov turned the series around with three points (one goal, two assists) in a 3-2 victory in Game 3.
“I think it’s important for everybody to step up and elevate your game, and mine as well,” Kucherov said.
Kucherov was in the middle of things again in Game 6 on Saturday, sending a perfect pass over the stick blade of defenseman K’Andre Miller to turn a 2-on-1 into a breakaway for Stamkos and the go-ahead goal with 6:32 remaining. The Avalanche undoubtedly were watching and are bracing for the challenge of trying to contain Kucherov.
“He’s an elite player, so any elite player is hard to defend, and it takes all five guys on the ice,” Colorado defenseman Devon Toews said. “He likes to kind of get lost behind the D, especially when we’re in the [offensive] area. He kind of takes off and tries to find open space and get those quick-strike opportunities, so that’s something we have to be aware of.”
Quick and sometimes quiet on and off the ice, Kucherov is evidence of deceiving appearances. And Stamkos said, “his English is great now,” so when he doesn’t say much, that is by choice.
“He’s bought in and that’s kind of been the transition that you’ve seen that’s made him a superstar in this league and why he can elevate his game at this time of the year when it’s so hard to,” Stamkos said. “Because he’s willing to do whatever it takes.”
NHL.com columnist Nicholas J. Cotsonika and staff writer Tracey Myers contributed to this story