Getty

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

4 Comments

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.

 

 

 

Ovechkin, Capitals headed to Stanley Cup Final after Game 7 triumph

46 Comments

Alex Ovechkin will get his chance.

The Great 8 will contest for the Stanley Cup after his Washington Capitals defeated their past demons and the Tampa Bay Lightning 4-0 in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference Final on Wednesday.

Yes, the Capitals — a team that had to overcome a horrific playoff record against the Pittsburgh Penguins in the second round and then had to deal the disappointment of beginning the Conference Final with wins in Games 1 and 2 only to drop three straight to trail 3-2.

They took care of business in Game 6, and that train kept chugging along into Game 7.

Ovi put his stamp on Game 7 just 62 seconds in as he wired a one-timer past Andrei Vasilevskiy.

The first period was a wild affair, filled with scuffles, a fight and stolen jersey.

And then Andre Burakovsky arrived.

Burakovsky missed the first 12 games of the plays because of injury and then followed that up with seven games without a point.

He revealed earlier in the series that he lays a mental beating on himself too often. So Game 7 must have felt pretty good.

Burakovsky scored on two separate breakaways in the second period.

The first came off a brutal giveaway from Dan Girardi in his own zone. His second came after the Lightning got caught on a bad change.

Tampa looked like a shell of their former selves. They dusted themselves off after dropping the first two at home, but simply stopped scoring after the 33-second mark in the second period of Game 5.

[PHT’s Three Stars]

Braden Holtby showed up at precisely the right moment in the series, posting consecutive shutouts to close out the series.

Steven Stamkos and Nikita Kucherov, meanwhile, were far from brilliant. No one over the last seven periods and change was on the Lightning.

The Lightning went 159:33 without scoring. Ouch.

You can’t win games when you don’t score, something the Lightning will have all summer to ponder. They led the NHL with 296 goals this season, all of which means sweet nothing now.

And now the attention turns to one of the more intriguing Cup Finals in a long time.

One of the greatest players of all-time with a chance to win his first Cup silence his critics after years of disappointment against the best story in sports, period.

Game 1 of the Stanley Cup Final begins Monday, May 28 at 8 p.m. ET on NBC.

In the words of Bart Scott, “Can’t wait.”

MORE:
NHL Playoffs 2018: Stanley Cup Final TV Schedule

Scott Billeck is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @scottbilleck

Lightning ride three-goal second period in 4-2 win

7 Comments

The list of things the Tampa Bay Lightning needed to do to avoid falling behind 0-3 in the Eastern Conference Final against the Washington Capitals was getting long.

As PHT’s James O’Brien pointed out on Tuesday, improved performances from Steven Stamkos and Victor Hedman in terms of puck possession would’ve been a start.

Nikita Kucherov finding the back of the net for the first time in the series would also help.

And perhaps most importantly, getting an outing from Andrei Vasilevskiy that was reminiscent of those that made him a Vezina Trophy finalist this year.

Stamkos stepped up his game with a 60% CF%, Vasilevskiy was solid, and the Lightning checked enough of the boxes elsewhere to get themselves back into the series, defeating the Capitals 4-2 in Game 3.

Hedman’s 5-on-5 game still needs some work, but No. 77 scored his first goal of the playoffs and added two helpers so no one will be complaining too much.

Kucherov got his first of the series, scoring on a one-timer on the power play.

[PHT’s Three Stars: Lightning power play stays hot in Game 3 win]

And Vasilevskiy looked much less fatigued than he did in the first two games, where he allowed 10 goals in five periods of play and never eclipsed a .850 save percentage.

Vasilevskiy had never lost three straight playoff games, and he didn’t start a new trend on Tuesday, steering aside 35-of-37 shots he faced.

He had to be particularly good late in the game after Evgeny Kuznetsov (no surprise) found paydirt from a dirty angle for his sixth point in the series with Washington’s net empty.

Tampa benefited from a three-goal outburst in the second period. Kucherov netted on the power play, Hedman found a fairly wide-open net to shoot at, and Brayden Point provided a late marker to give the Bolts a 4-1 edge through 40 minutes.

Washington didn’t have much of the magic they found in abundance in Tampa, although their possession numbers showed they controlled the majority of the shot share.

One now has to wonder how the Caps will manage Backstrom’s injury going forward.

There’s an argument that they could have given him the night off on Tuesday to promote further healing with the team holding a healthy 2-0 lead series lead. We’ll see what happens for Game 4 Thursday night (8 p.m. ET, NBCSN).

The Capitals certainly aren’t panicking at 2-1, but they need to be wary of their own ugly history when winning the first two games on the road (they’re 0-2 in a series where they do that). If Backstrom, one of the league’s best set-up men, can go and be effective, he can only help.

A side note: Home-ice advantage is a myth.

The Caps are 7-1 on the road in the playoffs and 3-4 at Capital One Arena. Tampa, meanwhile, improved to 4-1 away from AMALIE Arena.

MORE:
• 
Conference Finals schedule, TV info
• 
NBC’s Stanley Cup Playoff Hub

Scott Billeck is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @scottbilleck

Lightning bounce Bruins from playoffs in five games

Getty Images
41 Comments

The Tampa Bay Lightning will play for a spot in the Stanley Cup Final.

The Lightning earned a 3-1 decision in Game 5 on Sunday afternoon against the Boston Bruins, sending the Bruins into hibernation mode after taking the series 4-1.

The series will be largely defined by what the line of Brayden Point, Ondrej Palat and Tyler Johnson were able to accomplish after Tampa’s top line of Steven Stamkos, Nikita Kucherov and J.T. Miller took a back seat.

Point scored his third goal of the series to erase David Krejci‘s first-period tally, slotting home after making a patient play around Tuukka Rask.

Point, who finished with seven points in the series, helped the Lightning rebound from their 6-2 Game 1 defeat with a four-point night, a performance that one could argue was a turning point in the series. The Lightning cruised from there, allowing eight goals during their four-game winning streak.

Point’s time-on-ice jumped by over two minutes from Game 1 to Game 5, and it was well-deserved.

Contributions from Tampa’s top line weren’t as relevant as they were against the New Jersey Devils. Kucherov had 10 points in that series but just two points in the second round. Stamkos had a pivotal goal in Game 4 to force overtime, but had only an empty-netter otherwise.

Miller made his presence felt in Game 5, first by knocking David Backes out of the game with a crushing hit in the second period, and then minutes later, offering up the go-ahead goal that stood as the game-winner.

Boston, meanwhile, couldn’t find much in the way of scoring outside of Game 1.

Patrice Bergeron, Brad Marchand and David Pastrnak combined four just four goals over the final four games of the series and secondary scoring from the Bruins was virtually non-existent, ultimately spelling the end to Boston’s season.

The Lightning now waits for the winner between the Washington Capitals and the Pittsburgh Penguins. Washington leads the series 3-2 after a 6-3 win on Saturday.


Scott Billeck is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @scottbilleck

Girardi, Lightning push Bruins to brink of elimination

37 Comments

The Tampa Bay Lightning have one foot in the Eastern Conference Final.

Dan Girardi scored 3:18 into overtime to give Tampa a 3-1 series lead after taking their second straight at TD Garden.

Girardi’s goal capped off a third-period comeback with his winner. Steven Stamkos scored his first goal at even strength in 21 games to erase the Bruins’ 3-2 lead.

There was some controversey on Stamkos’ goal as it appeared Nikita Kucherov tripped up Charlie McAvoy prior to the Stamkos one-timer that tied the game 3-3.

Brad Marchand, who wasn’t without his own controversy on the night after throwing a low hit on Ryan Callahan before licking him in a scuffled after, wasn’t none too pleased with the non-call.

The Bruins’ top line got their band back together in the game, but not before Tampa took a two-goal lead in the first 10 minutes of the first period.

The Bruins found themselves trailing early and spending time killing off penalties as Brayden Point and Kucherov put the visitors head. Kucherov’s goal was his first of the series.

Patrice Bergeron‘s line with David Pastrnak and Marchand took over from there, regaining the mojo that had worked so well for them in Game 1 — their only win of the series thus far.

Pastrnak pulled the Bruins one back in the first and Bergeron netted the next two as the Bruins took their first lead in the third period.

The series shifts back to Tampa for Game 5 on Sunday afternoon and the Lightning now has a chance to close the series out at home.


Scott Billeck is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @scottbilleck