TAMPA, Fla. — The bigger the playoff moment, the more Nikita Kucherov shines.
The young Russian has a knack for scoring when Tampa Bay needs it most, which is one of the reasons the Lightning are within one victory of reaching the Stanley Cup final for the second straight year.
Kucherov has found the back of the net a NHL-leading 11 times in 15 games this postseason, seven of them in situations in which he’s either tied the score or given his team a lead.
The 22-year-old’s latest addition to his impressive playoff resume he began compiling last year was a late goal Sunday to force overtime against Pittsburgh in Game 5 of the Eastern Conference finals. He also notched an assist on Tyler Johnson‘s winner less than a minute into the extra period.
The 4-3 victory on the road gave Tampa Bay a 3-2 lead in the best-of-seven series. Game 6 in Tuesday night at Amalie Arena.
“When you’re a rising star in this league, as he is … every team’s got one of those guys at some point,” Lightning coach Jon Cooper said. “It just seems the bigger the moment, the bigger they rise to the occasion. He is proving that last year wasn’t a fluke. He’s just a gifted, skilled, determined player. He’s really a pleasure to coach.”
Kucherov had 10 goals in 26 playoff games a year ago, including a pair of overtime winners that helped the Lightning to the Stanley Cup final, where they lost to the Chicago Blackhawks in six games. One more victory and Tampa Bay will become the first team to make consecutive trips to the championship round since the Penguins and Detroit Red Wings did it in 2008 and 2009.
“He keeps climbing the ladder, and he keeps getting better. But what has really been remarkable for me this year in watching him is the timeliness of his game. He’s not scoring one goal in a 6-1 loss or the sixth goal in a 6-1 win,” Cooper said Monday.
“He’s getting the game-tier, game-winner; sets up the biggest of the biggest goals, and that says a little bit about the type of player you are,” the coach added. “When you need him, he’s the one ultimately, more often than not, that’s there for you. I think that’s the one thing that’s remarkable about him.”
Pittsburgh has gone from a 2-1 series lead to facing elimination for the first time this postseason after losing consecutively for the first time since January.
Coach Mike Sullivan said he won’t make a decision on a starting goaltender for Game 6 until Tuesday morning. Marc-Andre Fleury made his first start in nearly two months in Game 5, and was unable to protect leads of 2-0 and 3-2.
Rookie Matt Murray started the first four games of this series and is 9-4 with a 2.33 goals-against-average and .923 save percentage.
“I thought Marc made some big saves for us, especially early in the game,” Penguins coach Mike Sullivan said, adding it was difficult to gauge how much the long layoff impacted Fleury’s performance.
“It’s a tough circumstance. We believe in the guys we have. We think we have quality people, but it’s an imperfect situation,” Sullivan said before the team flew south to Florida on Monday. “All things considered, we’re trying to make the best decisions we can.”
The Penguins are confident than can rebound Tuesday night and take the series back home for a seventh game.
“I believe in my team. I believe in myself, and we can come back to Pittsburgh for sure,” Penguins star Evgeni Malkin said.
“Every game you shake off, win or lose,” Penguins left wing Chris Kunitz said.
“This group has done a terrific job all year of just staying in the moment and not dwelling on the past, not getting ahead of itself, and just trying to focus on that one game in hand,” Sullivan said, “and that’s what we’re going to have to do.”
Tampa Bay plans to approach it the same way.
The Lightning beat the New York Rangers on the road to take a 3-2 lead in last year’s conference finals. They returned home and were trounced 7-3 in Game 6.
“You can’t sit here and dictate or guarantee what the result’s going to be, but our mindset going into the game has got to be a heck of a lot different,” Cooper said. “And our group is well aware of that.”