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.

[NHL ON NBC STANLEY CUP PLAYOFF HUB]

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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    Sabres agree with Dylan Cozens on 7-year, $49.7M extension

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    BUFFALO, N.Y. — The Buffalo Sabres agreed to terms with forward Dylan Cozens on a seven-year extension worth $49.7 million.

    The team announced the contract. Cozens will count $7.1 million against the salary cap through the 2029-30 season.

    Cozens, who turns 22, is the latest core player the Sabres have extended over the past six months. Buffalo signed All-Star forward Tage Thompson for $50 million over seven seasons in August and defenseman Mattias Samuelsson to a seven-year, $30 million deal in October.

    Rasmus Dahlin, the top pick in 2020 who’s a Norris Trophy candidate and filled in for Thompson at NHL All-Star weekend, figures to be next for a big contract. He’s signed through next season and can begin talking about an extension this summer.

    Cozens, who was set to be a restricted free agent, has already set career highs with 17 goals, 26 assists and 43 points – with 30 games left in the season. The seventh pick in 2019, Cozens has 34 goals and 60 assists in 169 regular-season NHL games, all with Buffalo.

    The Sabres, led by Dahlin, Thompson, Cozens and 2021 No. 1 pick Owen Power, are contending to make the playoffs. The organization’s 11-year playoff drought dating to 2011 is by far the longest in the league.

    Stanley Cup champion Avalanche steadily returning to health

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    ENGLEWOOD, Colo. — Had his coach been watching, this might have made for an anxious moment: Colorado Avalanche defenseman Cale Makar catching an edge and falling in the fastest skater contest.

    Jared Bednar wasn’t tuned in, though, and had no idea what happened in the skills contest over All-Star weekend. Only that Makar emerged from his crash into the boards just fine.

    These days, things are definitely looking up for the Stanley Cup champions on the injury front. Defenseman Bowen Byram returns to the lineup, along with forward Valeri Nichushkin. Defenseman Josh Manson is creeping closer to a return. Same for captain Gabriel Landeskog, who’s yet to play this season. Forward Darren Helm is progressing, too.

    In spite of all their bumps and bruises, the Avalanche entered the All-Star break in a playoff spot. To weather the injury storm, Colorado has relied on 39 different skaters this season, a mark that’s tied for the most in a single season since the team relocated to Denver in 1995.

    “Anybody we can get back right now is huge,” said Makar, whose team kicks off a three-game trip Tuesday night in Pittsburgh.

    Byram returns after being sidelined with a lower-body injury since early November. He was an integral part of their Stanley Cup run a season ago, when he led all rookies with nine assists in the postseason. Byram was off to a fast start this season – two goals and three assists in 10 games – before his injury.

    “He’s looking great. He’s buzzing out there,” Makar said of his fellow blue liner. “Hopefully it doesn’t take him too long to get back into game mode. But I think he’s a guy that can turn it on pretty quickly.”

    Byram missed a chunk of games last season as he dealt with concussion symptoms. This time, he was able to be around the team as he worked his way back.

    “I was just happy it wasn’t my head,” Byram said. “It was a lot easier to be out when you’re still feeling good and feel like yourself. … I’m just excited to get going again.”

    Count on Byram for as many minutes as necessary, too.

    “I’m 100%, so no reason to ease into it,” Byram said. “I’m confident with jumping back in.”

    Manson will join the Avalanche on the trip so he can skate with the squad. He’s been out with a lower-body injury since the start of December.

    “I do think it helps to get on the road, be around the guys,” Bednar said.

    Landeskog could be back “fairly soon,” Bednar said, but didn’t have a definitive timeline quite yet. The longtime Avalanche captain has been sidelined since knee surgery in October.

    The Avalanche entered the All-Star break on quite a roll, winning seven of their last eight. They’ve amassed 57 points, which trails Dallas (66 points at the All-Star break), Winnipeg (65) and Minnesota (58) in the Central Division.

    One thing the Avalanche are guarding against is another slow start out off the break. It happened over Christmas when the team had a few days off and promptly went 0-4-1 upon their return.

    “It’s just shifting the mentality back to game mode. No more vacation,” Makar said. “We still have a long way to go. We’re not where we want to be right now. But there’s a lot of time left.”

    Kraken add some size, acquire Jaycob Megna from San Jose

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    SEATTLE — The Seattle Kraken acquired defenseman Jaycob Megna from the San Jose Sharks in exchange for a 2023 fourth-round draft pick.

    Megna is in the midst of his best season with 12 points in 48 games for the Sharks while averaging more than 19 minutes per game.

    “Jaycob has shown with his play this season that he is a responsible defenseman that can be relied on in all situations,” Seattle general manager Ron Francis said. “He provides welcome depth to our defensive group and we are happy to have him join our organization.”

    The 6-foot-6, 220-pound Megna will add some size and bulk to Seattle’s lineup. Megna ranked fifth for San Jose in both blocked shots and hits.

    Megna previously played for Anaheim for parts of three seasons between 2016-19. The 48 games played this season is a career-high for the 30-year-old.

    Seattle is tied for the lead in the Pacific Division and will return from the All-Star break beginning against the New York Islanders.

    Islanders sign Bo Horvat to 8-year deal after trading for him

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    The New York Islanders signed center Bo Horvat to an eight-year contract less than a week after acquiring him in a trade with the Vancouver Canucks.

    The team announced the contract after their first practice following the All-Star break. Horvat’s deal is worth $68 million and carries a $8.5 million salary cap hit through the 2030-31 season.

    General manager Lou Lamoriello joked to reporters at practice on Long Island that Horvat’s contract was “too long and it’s too much money.”

    The Islanders sent forward Anthony Beauvillier, prospect Aatu Raty and a protected first-round pick to the Canucks for Horvat . He was set to be an unrestricted free agent after the season, and the trade was a result of Vancouver and Horvat’s camp being unable to reach a deal last summer.

    Lamoriello and Horvat expressed confidence about getting a deal done after the trade. The 27-year-old has scored more than 30 goals for a second consecutive season.

    Horvat was chosen as an All-Star and played for the Pacific Division despite the trade. He played with longtime Canucks teammate Elias Pettersson and combined on one last goal together before parting ways.

    “I want to get going,” Horvat said after the All-Star 3-on-3 tournament. “That’s enough. Let’s start playing some games and getting to know the guys. I just want to start playing hockey again.”

    Horvat was on vacation with his family in Orlando when he was traded. He said coach Lane Lambert wanted him to enjoy All-Star festivities before getting rolling with the Islanders, who play at the Philadelphia Flyers.

    “Obviously getting my legs under me is going to be No. 1 and getting systems down and obviously chemistry with the new linemates and stuff like that,” Horvat said.

    After facing the Flyers and Seattle, Horvat will play against his former team when Vancouver visits UBS Arena.