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Wednesday Night Hockey: Nikita Kucherov is a master of deception

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NBCSN’s coverage of the 2018-19 NHL season continues with the Wednesday Night Hockey matchup between the Tampa Bay Lightning and Washington Capitals. Coverage begins at 6:30 p.m. ET on NBCSN. You can watch the game online and on the NBC Sports app by clicking here.

Nikita Kucherov had three options. Carter Hutton had no chance.

The Tampa Bay Lightning superstar could have dished the puck off to Brayden Point on his right or set up Tyler Johnson for a one-timer from the faceoff circle. Instead, the likely winner of the 2019 Art Ross and Hart Trophies did what he does best: wristed a shot by another NHL goaltender using a bit of deception.

Kucherov patiently waited just long enough to use Zach Bogosian as a screen while leaving Johnson available as a dangerous option to his left.

Patience. Awareness. Deception. A killer shot. That’s the essence of Kucherov’s game. He can shoot, and he can pass, and he does it all by keeping opponents unsure of what he’s going to do with the puck, especially skating in one-on-one on a poor goaltender as he prepares his “no-move” shootout move.

“I’ll be honest, he can almost surprise you on a daily basis with some of the plays he makes,” said Lightning head coach Jon Cooper. “It’s once every couple of days he makes a play and I’m glancing at one of the assistant coaches like, ‘I hope we got that on tape.’ He just makes plays that most players don’t see. But to watch his growth every single year, and he’s just gotten better and better. It’s a testament to him with what he’s done and how he works.”

Kucherov’s year-by-year improvement has come to this: 117 points with nine games remaining this season. His previous career high in points was 100, which he reached last season. He scored 40 goals during in 2016-17 and has a good chance at passing that mark as he’s scored 35 through 73 games this season.

His scoring prowess is something this league has not seen in a long time. Kucherov is the first NHL player to reach 115 points since Sidney Crosby’s 120 during the 2006-07 season. Helping hit that number has been his six four-point games this season.

Kucherov’s ascension to elite superstar status has been helped by his off-ice work ethic. The inside of his two-car garage is taken up by synthetic ice. It’s a place he’s able to go during his down time or even after a game to hone his skills. There might work with weighted pucks, some shooting to sharpen his accuracy, or tightening up his stick-handling. It could have been a winning night for the Lightning, but if he’s not satisfied with how he played you’ll find him there. It’s also not a rare sight to see him inside the dressing room stickhandling with a ball. There’s always room for improvement, right?

Everything we see on the ice from Kucherov is connected to what he does off of it.

“People don’t understand how hard he works away from the rink,” said Lightning captain Steven Stamkos. “Like, it’s all hockey. He’ll text me the night before a game if there is a game going on and be like, ‘Did you see that?’ or ‘Did you see this guy’s move?’ or ‘Did you see that goal?’ or ‘Did you see how many minutes this guy played tonight?’ He just loves hockey so much.”

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It’s not just Kucherov’s ability to shoot that makes him so dangerous. His vision allows him to create as well, which explains his 260 assists since 2014-15, placing him tied for sixth in the league over that span. In fact, if you take away his 35 goals this season, he would be tied for ninth in NHL scoring.

Kucherov’s 82 helpers are the most since Henrik Sedin’s 83 in 2009-10. He’s also only the fourth different player to reach the 80-assist mark in a season since 1999-00 (Joe Thornton did it twice).

Knowing not just where his teammates are on the ice but also opponents is what makes Kucherov a dangerous playmaker. Always one for wanting to be unpredictable, his vision allows him to survey the ice and read the play so well in order to create scoring chances.

Take for example this Stamkos goal from last season. Kucherov could have easily taken not one, but two different one-timers on a single power play shift, but both times he saw an opening in the Columbus Blue Jackets’ penalty kill setup that he felt he could exploit. They were both high-risk, cross-ice passes to Stamkos, with the second opportunity leading to a goal.

But with great risk comes great reward.

On the first pass, Kucherov uses his patented deception. He fakes the one-timer, freezing the Blue Jackets long enough to thread a seam to Stamkos. The second one, through a bit of a mad scramble, he catches Zach Werenski, who isn’t 100 percent sure where the puck is, flat-footed, and with Seth Jones going for the shot block and Boone Jenner still getting back to his feet, a slot opens up to find Stamkos again for the goal.

Opponents can try and read Kucherov’s body as he possesses the puck, but that isn’t going to give them an edge in trying to take it away. More often than not when you think you’ve got him closed up, he’ll find an outlet.

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The great ones never rest on what they’ve already achieved. Kucherov’s point totals have increased every season since he broke into the NHL, including his back-to-back 100-point seasons. He’s averaged 35 goals a year since 2014-15 and will very likely hit the 40-goal mark for the second time in his career within the next three weeks.

Kucherov, who has an eight-year, $76M extension kicking in next season, doesn’t turn 26 until June. He’s only improving as the years go on and shows no signs of being satisfied.

“The one thing about Kuch, when he got to the NHL he didn’t sit down and say, ‘OK, exhale, I made it,'” said Cooper. “He was one of those guys that now the work’s just beginning, and he’s been putting it in ever since that day.”

“When you have the skillset he has, his hockey mind is so elite, his physical skills and all that is catching up. The improvement you see year after year after year is he just keeps working at it; and not only on the ice but studying the game and where guys should be and how they should play and how other teams play you. 

“He’s educated himself on what other teams do and defensemen and all the other things. This is the product you get.”

John Forslund (play-by-play), U.S. Hockey Hall of Fame member Eddie Olczyk (analyst), and Emmy Award-winner Pierre McGuire (‘Inside-the-Glass’ analyst) will have the call from Capital One Arena in Washington, D.C. Pre-game coverage starts at 6:30 p.m. ET with NHL Live, hosted by Kathryn Tappen alongside Mike Milbury, Keith Jones and Bob McKenzie.

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Sean Leahy is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @Sean_Leahy.

Where Kucherov hitting 115 points fits in recent NHL history

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Nikita Kucherov isn’t merely content to shred defenses and poor, helpless opposing goalies. He’s like a hot knife going through butter when it comes to the best seasons in recent NHL history, too.

With an impressive two-goal, two-assist night in the Lightning’s 5-4 win against the Red Wings on Thursday, Kucherov now has a blistering 115 points this season. Kucherov has done so in just 71 games, so if he maintains his current (about 1.6197 points-per-game) pace and plays all 82 games, he’d finish either with 132 or 133 in 2018-19.

Just look at this nonsense, as Kucherov unlocked the “destroy the Gatorade achievement” for one of his goals:

Even if Kucherov stopped here, he’d be in some absolutely elite company.

The last player to reach at least 115 points was Sidney Crosby, who managed 120 back in 2006-07. A year before that, Joe Thornton (125) outdueled Jaromir Jagr (123) in a remarkable race for the Art Ross/Hart Trophy in 2005-06.

But, again, if Kucherov stopped at 115, he’d have put together one of the best runs since the calendar hit 2000. Here’s a short list of the best seasons since 2000-01:

1. Joe Thornton, 125 in 2005-06
2. Jaromir Jagr, 123 in 2005-06
3. Jagr, 121 in 2000-01
4. Sidney Crosby, 120 in 2006-07
5. Joe Sakic, 118 in 2000-01
6. Kucherov, 115 in 2018-19
7. Thornton, 114 in 2006-07

Remarkable.

If Kucherov came in around 132 or 133 points as he’s projected, he’d top Jagr’s 127 points from 1998-99. You have to reach back to Mario Lemieux’s 161 points in 1995-96 to see a better total than that projected 132-133 points, and players have only hit 130+ on nine occasions (eight players, with Lemieux doing it twice) since 1992-93.

Kucherov’s 115 points ties with Eric Lindros’ 115 points from 1995-96 as the 25th-best total since 1992-93 already.

This is truly jaw-dropping stuff, and it increasingly feels like Kucherov might only be stopped by injuries, or maybe a decision to give him a breather before the 2019 Stanley Cup Playoffs. His points break down as 35 goals and 80 assists, so he’s just two helpers away from being a point-per-game player based on assists alone. That’s the sort of stuff we expected from Gretzky.

With all due respect to Connor McDavid, the other player to hit 100 points already (again), it’s tough to imagine any other player threatening Kucherov’s grasp on a much-deserved MVP trophy this season. Interestingly, Kucherov’s hit this mark with substantial ice time (19:42 TOI average), but not nearly being asked to carry the same burden as other potential finalists in McDavid (23:01) and Patrick Kane (22:26).

It’s a truly special season, one where Kucherov’s built on already-strong work to hit another level. At 25, it’s not outrageous to picture him approaching this level again, although he’s setting the bar incredibly high.

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

McDavid’s latest 100-point season puts him in rare company

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It was the type of night that Edmonton Oilers forward Connor McDavid has probably already become frustratingly accustomed to having early in his NHL career.

He had a productive game with a pair of assists, the sixth consecutive game he has recorded at least two points, while the rest of his team looked like it was unprepared to play in an ugly 6-3 loss to a New Jersey Devils team that had lost seven games in a row and barely resembled an NHL roster given its injury situation and the trades it made over the past month.

It was probably enough to eliminate whatever lingering playoff hopes the team had this season, slim as they may have already been.

[Related: Oilers squander opportunity to gain ground in playoff race]

The lone positive for McDavid, though, is that his two assists allowed him to reach the 100-point mark for the third consecutive season, an accomplishment that is almost unheard of in today’s NHL.

First, he is one of only five active players to have at least three 100-point seasons in his career, joining a list that includes only Sidney Crosby (five), Alex Ovechkin (four), Evgeni Malkin (three), and Joe Thornton (three).

Ovechkin is the only other one out of that group that reached the century mark in three consecutive seasons.

Crosby, who had 100-point seasons in 2005-06, 2006-07, 2008-09, and 2009-10) almost certainly would have done it six or seven years in a row had he not missed so many games to injury in 2007-08, 2010-11 and even 2011-12.

That alone is impressive. Then there is the fact he has done it within his first four seasons in the league, something that only seven other players in the history of the league have done. That list: Wayne Gretzky, Mario Lemieux, Peter Stastny, Crosby, Dale Hawerchuk, Ovechkin, and … Mike Rogers.

Rogers is the obvious name that doesn’t really seem to fit there, and his three 100-point seasons came when he was in his mid-20s after player several years in the WHA as a member of the Hartford Whalers. All of the other players were between the ages of 18 and 23 when they did it. They are all also either already in the Hall of Fame (Gretzky, Lemieux, Hawerchuk, Stastny) or will be there as soon as they retire (Crosby, Ovechkin).

So pretty good company to be included with.

Crosby, Ovechkin, and McDavid are also the only three players that have accomplished the feat outside of the high-scoring free-for-all days that were the 1980s NHL.

McDavid is currently second in the NHL scoring race, 11 points behind Tampa Bay Lightning forward Nikita Kucherov.

Between him and Leon Draisaitl the Oilers have two of the league’s top-six scorers (and Draisaitl not only has an outside shot at 50 goals, he may even join McDavid as a 100-point scorer) and are still six points out of a playoff spot in the Western Conference, likely to miss for the third time in four years with McDavid.

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.

Nyquist heating up for red-hot Sharks

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To plenty of people in the hockey world, the San Jose Sharks were one of the stealth winners of the trade deadline after landing Gustav Nyquist in a night owl trade with the Detroit Red Wings.

[More on the trade, including the cost for the Sharks.]

The winger had been quiet early on, only managing an empty-net goal through his first four games with the Sharks. Tuesday presented a possible breakthrough, as Nyquist scored two goals in San Jose’s 5-4 win against the Winnipeg Jets, giving him points (2G, 1A) during the Sharks’ back-to-back set.

Overall, Nyquist has three goals and four assists in seven games. Most importantly, the Sharks are red-hot, with six straight wins. They’ve only lost one time since landing Nyquist.

So, how is he integrating into the lineup, and how do the Sharks look with him? Some of this stuff will sneak under the radar, but it’s promising overall.

Nyquist’s first seven games with San Jose

So far, much of Nyquist’s points can be attributed to the great work of Tomas Hertl.

Nyquist’s first of four points in teal came on an empty-netter (albeit a fairly long-range one), but his other three can largely be credited to Hertl.

  • On Monday, Nyquist received a secondary assist on a Hertl goal. His part in that play seemed to have started before the goal highlight even began.
  • On Tuesday, Nyquist enjoyed that two-goal game. The first happened after Hertl made some dazzling dangles, opening things up for “The Goose” to bury the puck with a backhander.
  • Hertl didn’t get credited with an assist on Nyquist’s second goal, but he set the events in motion by creating space and sending the puck toward the Jets’ net. It was technically unsuccessful in that a Jets skater batted it away, but Marc-Edouard Vlasic was able to send it back, and the puck apparently deflected off of Nyquist.

So, while Nyquist has three goals and one assist for four points during his first seven games with the Sharks, he doesn’t really have a “signature” moment yet. But that doesn’t mean he’s playing poorly.

Take that two-goal Tuesday, for example. Sure, Hertl was the driving force on those two goals, but Nyquist generated six shots on goal, his most in any single game with the Sharks so far.

He’s been a nice addition in subtler ways, carrying over his strong possession numbers from Detroit to San Jose, as he’s been a boost to shot share relative to his teammates on both teams. Perhaps Nyquist will also make a more obvious impact as he gains Peter DeBoer’s trust? So far, the winger’s averaging 16 minutes of ice time per game with San Jose, down from his 18:07 TOI average with Detroit in 2018-19. It’s plausible that Nyquist won’t ever flirt with 18 minutes per night with San Jose, as the Sharks are pretty loaded (particularly compared to the rebuilding Red Wings), but even another shift or two per night could help him generate more offense.

The combination of Hertl and Nyquist could really give opposing teams headaches, especially since they’d likely draw easier matchups while Logan Couture and others would likely face top pairings and better skaters.

Maybe Nyquist won’t wow the Sharks enough to stay around (he’s a pending UFA), but it seems like he’s been a nice addition, one who could provide crucial depth during the battles of the 2019 Stanley Cup Playoffs.

Sharks are on a roll

Much like the Golden Knights rattling off wins even though Mark Stone was slow to score at first, the Sharks have been red-hot since acquiring Nyquist, whether you attribute that to the addition or count it as a coincidence.

After falling 4-1 to the Bruins during Nyquist’s first game with the Sharks on Feb. 26, San Jose’s now on a six-game winning streak, outscoring opponents 25-13 during that run.

They’ve actually been a bit less dominant at five-on-five during the past seven games versus their full-season stats (according to Natural Stat Trick), but that’s a small sample size … and possession monster Erik Karlsson has been sidelined since Feb. 26. All things considered, the Sharks sure seem formidable.

***

The ideal situation for San Jose would be that Nyquist will be fully acclimated to his new teammates by the 2019 Stanley Cup Playoffs (and Erik Karlsson can be healthy and rust-free by that same point). While some dreamed of Nyquist forming a rather overqualified third line with Joe Thornton, recent returns indicate that the Sharks might be onto something by pairing him with Hertl.

Nyquist hasn’t been lighting up scoreboards for the Sharks – yet? – but he’s been mixing in quite well, and the Sharks look like they’ll be difficult to deal with in a best-of-seven series.

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

Bettman rejects Voracek’s appeal, upholds two-game suspension

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To little surprise, NHL commissioner Gary Bettman rejected Philadelphia Flyers forward Jakub Voracek‘s appeal, thus upholding Voracek’s two-game suspension.

Voracek, 29, sought to appeal that suspension for an interference hit on New York Islanders defenseman Johnny Boychuk. Bettman’s ruling on the suspension revealed that Voracek and his reps were looking to reduce the suspension from two games to one.

Bettman provided his full reasoning in this one-page ruling, with this excerpt being the most noteworthy part:

(See the video above this post’s headline for the hit, and Voracek’s initial reactions.)

This was an unusual process in a few ways.

To start, there were some interesting events in the aftermath of the hit. Boychuk essentially vowed revenge on Voracek, prompting the Flyers winger to accuse Boychuk of cutting a pro wrestling promo on him.

“He’s pointing at me like it’s WrestleMania or something,” Voracek said after the game. “Come on, it’s a hockey game. This is a guy who was sucker-punching 19-year-old Nolan Patrick last year at the end of the game, and he’s going to do that. Give me a break.”

Then, when the league announced the two-game suspension, Voracek’s derision was palpable, and emoji-filled:

In the latest edition of “31 Thoughts,” Elliotte Friedman notes that it’s quite unusual for a player in Voracek’s position to appeal a suspension in the first place.

While larger suspensions can go to an independent arbitrator – who frequently reduce the length of suspensions – rulings like Voracek’s stop at Gary Bettman’s desk, so it was unlikely that this would go any further. Friedman wrote about how rare this is:

The last eight appeals this decade involved only one that ended up being fewer than 10 games. (That was Dan Carcillo’s 2014 playoff punishment for physical abuse of an official, shortened to six by Bettman.) I can find only one try for anything as low as Voracek’s two. That was Joe Thornton in November 2010, also trying to lift a two-game suspension — for a hit to the head of David Perron. He failed to move the needle, as Bettman upheld the original decision. So this is rare. In some ways, it is fitting the Flyers would be the ones to charge at the status quo.

Ultimately, that challenge was unsuccessful, as Voracek’s two-gamer stands.

Then again, maybe Voracek was doing this to send a message, although a successful appeal would have left him available for Thursday’s game against the Washington Capitals. Instead, he’ll have to settle for a return against the Maple Leafs in Toronto on Friday, after that two-game suspension runs its course.

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.