Nikita Kucherov is key for Lightning in Stanley Cup Final

NBCSN’s coverage of the 2021 NHL Stanley Cup Playoffs continues with Monday’s Game 1 between the Montreal Canadiens and Tampa Bay Lightning. Canadiens-Lightning stream coverage begins at 7 p.m. ET on NBCSN and Peacock. You can watch the game online and on the NBC Sports app by clicking here.

Given the Lightning have charged all the way to the Stanley Cup Final upon his return, there’s no questioning Nikita Kucherov‘s impact.

The Lightning forward missed the entire regular season and his triumphant return has been the exclamation mark of Tampa Bay’s run. Kucherov leads the playoffs in points with 27, a full seven more than the next highest total, 20 from his teammate, Brayden Point.

He didn’t miss Game 7 with the Islanders despite being pulled from Game 6. On Stanley Cup Final Media Day, Kucherov was reluctant to talk about the injury — or even acknowledge it — despite head coach Jon Cooper calling it “dicey” if he would even suit up for Game 7.

“There was no question if I’m going to play or not,” Kucherov said “I felt good. It’s a Game 7. You’ve got to sacrifice yourself and play in those moments.”

He and the Lightning face a different challenge in their Cup Final foe than the previous three rounds. The Canadiens have done a tremendous job shutting off elite forwards. Auston Matthews with Toronto and well, every offensive player with Winnipeg and Mark Stone with Vegas had disappointing series.

That can attributed to the Canadiens defense and especially their tremendous two-way play from their forwards. Kucherov had two days of rest between Game 7 and tonight’s Game 1 before he has to take that on.

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Before now, he’s likely been the healthiest guy these playoffs after not picking up any regular season mileage. That’s clearly different, dealing with fallout from taking a crosscheck early in Game 6.

Montreal’s penalty kill shut down the Golden Knights and the Habs have consistently been one of the best five-on-five teams in the league. The Lightning power play cooled off a bit against the Islanders, but in a 1-0 Game 7 win they showed they don’t need that element of their game to be successful.

They do need Kucherov, though. Even while Steven Stamkos had a slow series with the Islanders — just the two goals in Game 5 — Kucherov has been their postseason constant, along with Point and his now-finished ridiculous nine-game goal scoring streak.

If the Canadiens are going to beat the Lightning, it’ll be the same formula they used against their last three opponents. It will happen because Kucherov and Point and Stamkos don’t get it done. One difference for the Lightning is their ability to create offense everywhere, from defenders like Victor Hedman or depth forwards like Alex Killorn.

Kuchverov is the key though; he always was. That’s why there’s been so much commentary about how they supposedly found a loophole the salary cap to get him for the postseason. Kucherov has been the key for the Lightning offense to operate the way it does, he opens the rest of their depth and hides when other forwards aren’t producing.

“It’s going to be a tough series, obviously,” Kucherov said on Sunday. “They are a hell of a team. They made it to the Final for a reason and we respect them. But at the same time, you know we want to worry about ourselves and play the right way for 60 minutes and see what happens.”

If his injury lingers and the Canadiens defense does what it did to the other teams, there’s a path for them to become Stanley Cup champions. If Kucherov is fine following the Game 6 injury and plays the way he has all postseason, well, it’ll be that much tougher for Montreal to pull of the upset.

2021 NHL playoff schedule: Stanley Cup Final – series livestream link

Game 1: Mon. June 28: Canadiens at Lightning, 8 p.m. ET (NBCSN / Peacock)
Game 2: Wed. June 30: Canadiens at Lightning, 8 p.m. ET (NBCSN / Peacock)
Game 3: Fri. July 2: Lightning at Canadiens, 8 p.m. ET (NBC)
Game 4: Mon. July 5: Lightning at Canadiens, 8 p.m. ET (NBC)
*Game 5: Wed. July 7: Canadiens at Lightning, 8 p.m. ET (NBC)
*Game 6: Fri. July 9: Lightning at Canadiens, 8 p.m. ET (NBC)
*Game 7: Sun. July 11: Canadiens at Lightning, 7 p.m. ET (NBC)

*if necessary

Marisa Ingemi is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop her a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow her on Twitter @Marisa_Ingemi.

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