Here’s what we know: Nikita Kucherov made a huge impact for the Lightning during the 2021 Stanley Cup Playoffs. Here’s what we don’t know: if Kucherov will even be able to play for the Lightning against the Islanders in Game 7 on Friday (8 p.m. ET; NBCSN / Peacock).
Kucherov left Game 6 early, and did not return, after getting cross-checked in the back/lower body by Islanders defenseman Scott Mayfield. (Mayfield would not endear himself to the Lightning or their fans afterward, also getting into a skirmish with Steven Stamkos, and scoring a big goal.)
On the morning before Islanders – Lightning Game 7, Lightning coach Jon Cooper simply said he did not know if Kucherov could play. As of this writing, it simply sounds like a game-time decision.
A Game 7 is almost always a coin flip, at least in hockey. But not knowing if Kucherov (comfortably leading the 2021 Stanley Cup Playoffs with 27 points) can play in Game 7? Yeah, that makes for an unnerving mystery.
Let’s consider the possibility. What are some lineup scenarios if the Lightning must try to beat the Islanders in Game 7 without Kucherov?
First, the more nuts & bolts details.
Forward options; Extra defenseman? Cernak uncertainty
If Kucherov can’t go in Game 7, there are a few different possibilities.
The most important question (beyond Kucherov’s availability) is if Erik Cernak can play in Game 7. He’s been banged-up lately, making way for Luke Schenn.
A healthy Cernak could give Cooper at least the option to go with an alignment he often deploys: 11 forwards and seven defensemen instead of the usual 12F – 6D setup. Cooper made comments that indicate that he’d rather not go with an 11F/7D setup, though.
Beyond Cernak, there are questions about three forwards possibly drawing into the lineup: Gemel Smith, Mathieu Joseph, and Mitchell Stephens. The Athletic’s Joe Smith believes that Smith might have a leg up to play in Game 7:
Just reading the tea leaves here: Think Gemel Smith would draw in if Kucherov can’t go – he did work with Maroon, Colton and Halpern after skate. Cooper prefers 12/6 vs Isles. Joseph, Stephens + Schenn all still out here for scratches skate, so that’s a good sign for Erik Cernak.
— Joe Smith (@JoeSmithTB) June 25, 2021
If Cooper went with Smith in Game 7, it would be quite the challenge for the seldolmly-used Lightning forward. Smith, 27, played in five games for the Lightning this season, and hasn’t skated a shift in an NHL playoff game.
How the Lightning lined up without Kucherov
For better or worse, there’s plenty of data available regarding how the Lightning might handle line combos if Kucherov can’t play in Game 7.
- Most directly, there’s how they handled Game 6, when Kucherov played 46 seconds.
The Lightning rolled out an effective combination of Ondrej Palat and Brayden Point (Kucherov’s regular linemates) alongside Anthony Cirelli. Palat, Point, and Cirelli scored two goals and allowed none at even-strength, presenting a matching 2-0 edge in high-danger chances.
Considering that success, one would expect that to be the starting option. But who knows?
- During the regular season, the Lightning lined up Palat and Point with a variety of other forwards, with Steven Stamkos and Cirelli being the most frequent centers.
Good and bad news for Lightning power play if Kucherov can’t play in Game 7
On one hand, the Lightning went 0-for-2 on the power play without Kucherov in Game 6. At times, it looked disjointed. (Stamkos wasn’t totally negative about their PP work, though.)
Clearly, they’ll miss his dangerous combination of cerebral passing and scintillating sniping.
“There’s no replacing Kuch,” Stamkos said after Game 6, via NHL.com. “He’s had an unbelievable playoffs for us. He’s so lethal out there offensively, on the power play.”
Indeed, even when Kucherov seemed less than 100-percent at 5-on-5, he was ruthlessly efficient in man advantage situations. Along with comfortably leading the postseason with 27 points, he’s also the leading power play producer with 17 PPP. (Teammate Victor Hedman’s a fairly distant second with 12.)
While they wouldn’t be as frightening if Kucherov can’t play in Game 7, the Islanders can’t totally relax against the Lightning power play. During the season, the Lightning converted on 22.2-percent of their opportunities, the ninth-best power play mark in the NHL. Not bad for a unit that didn’t have Kucherov at all, and lacked Stamkos for 18 of 56 games.
So, sure, the Lightning will miss Kucherov if he must miss Game 7 vs. the Islanders. They’re familiar with being without the former Hart Trophy winner, though, and at least still have a red-hot Brayden Point on their side.
ISLANDERS VS. LIGHTNING (Series tied 3-3) – series livestream link
Game 1: Islanders 2, Lightning 1
Game 2: Lightning 4, Islanders 2
Game 3: Lightning 2, Islanders 1
Game 4: Islanders 3, Lightning 2
Game 5: Lightning 8, Islanders 0
Game 6: Islanders 3, Lightning 2 (OT)
Game 7: Fri. June 25: Islanders at Lightning, 8 p.m. ET (NBCSN / Peacock)
James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at email@example.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.