Looking at Nikita Kucherov’s rapid climb to NHL scoring lead

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Let’s go back to the start of December and take a quick look at the NHL’s scoring race.

On December 1, Tampa Bay Lighting forward Nikita Kucherov was sitting in fourth place with 35 points in his first 26 games. It was an incredible start to the season and continuing what has been a phenomenal career that has seen him emerge as one of the NHL’s elite offensive players.

He was also eight points behind Colorado Avalanche forward Mikko Rantanen who was on top of the NHL with 43 points.

In 35 days that have followed, a lot has happened. Let’s try to break it down a little bit.

[Related: Eight stunning numbers from the first half of the NHL season]

— First, Rantanen has continued to play outstanding hockey and has recorded an additional 19 points in the 15 games he has played. That scoring pace would net a player 103 points of an 82-game stretch. So, still very dominant. Not as much as the first part of the season, but still dominant. Still among the league’s best players.

— Despite that consistently great level of play, he has not only seen his eight-point lead over Kucherov completely evaporate, he now finds himself entering play on Friday sitting seven points behind Kucherov’s 69 points in the scoring race. That is a 15-point swing in Kucherov’s favor in just 35 days, while Rantanen was still scoring at a 100-point pace!  That is not an easy thing to do

— It has required an absolutely dominant run from Kucherov that has seen him tally 34 points in just 15 games, a stretch that has seen Tampa Bay go on a 14-0-1 run to continue to distance itself from the rest of the pack in the league standings. It is by far the best stretch of his career as he had never recorded more than 27 points in any one 15-game stretch prior to this season. He has at least one point 14 of those games, and multiple points in 10 of them including each of the past seven. He also has four four-point games in those 15 games alone, a number that puts him at the top of the league for the entire season.

— It is also part of a larger stretch for Kucherov that has seen him record 51 points over his past 23 games, failing to record a point in only one of those games. It has all put him on a pace for more than 137 points this season, a mark that has not been touched in the NHL since Mario Lemieux and Jaromir Jagr did it during the 1995-96 season. He’s also on pace for 98 assists at the halfway point. No one has recorded 90 assists in a season since Joe Thornton did it in back-to-back years in 2005-06 and 2006-07. No one has reached at least 98 since Wayne Gretzky (122) during the 1990-91 season.

— While playing on Tampa Bay’s incredible power play unit certainly helps him, Kucherov hasn’t just been a creation of the power play. He has also been dominant during 5-on-5 play with 37 of his points (including 10 goals and 16 primary assists — he also has 11 secondary assists) coming during 5-on-5 play. No player in the NHL has more 5-on-5 points this season.

— His 69 points in 41 games are the fifth most in the NHL at the halfway point over the past 25 years. Mario Lemieux (93 points in 41 games in 1995-96 and 70 points in 1996-97) and Jaromir Jagr (84 points in 1995-96 and 72 points in 1999-2000) are the only ones that have exceeded it.

Even if he cools off in the second half and averages “only” a point per game, a mark he has exceeded for three seasons now, he would still finish the year with 110 points. If he averaged the 1.2 points per game he averaged over the past two seasons, he would still end the season with 120 points.

Given how talented he is, how well he is playing, and the incredible players the Lightning have assembled around him I wouldn’t want to bet against him coming close to reaching those numbers this season. He is on track for one of the best individual single season performances in recent league history for a Tampa Bay team that is having one of the best team seasons in recent league history.

MORE: Your 2018-19 NHL on NBC TV schedule

Adam Gretz is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.