It was odd to see Nikita Kucherov was not selected as one of the three stars of the game by the local media on Wednesday night. He didn’t even get the third star for Pete’s sake. One had to double-check to make sure this was right, and it turned out it was.
It was hard to believe. The Lightning do not win Game 4 of the first round best-of-seven series without Kucherov’s contributions. He had an impact in the game by registering two goals and an assist along with a hit that knocked Sami Vatanen out of the game in the Tampa Bay Lightning’s 3-1 victory over the Devils at Prudential Center that has now given the Lightning a 3-1 series lead.
The Devils actually have done a fine job containing him in this series, but they knew he was going to make an impact sooner or later. He is too good not to be a factor. Not when he was the NHL’s No. 3 scorer this season. He scored 39 goals and tallied up 61 assists in the regular season. Not when he has scored 24 goals and tallied up 24 assists in his postseason career prior to Wednesday night.
Prior to Game 4, the Lightning sharpshooter had two goals and four assists in this series. He did not hurt the Devils the way Alex Killorn, Ondrej Palat and Tyler Johnson have, which speaks well of the Lightning’ depth on offense. His impact has come when the game was out of hand such as Game 1 and in a loss in Game 3.
In a swing game of this series, Kucherov was the best player on the ice. There’s no argument there. When he assisted J.T. Miller’s goal to tie the game at one in the first period, the Devils knew he was going to make his presence felt. He had several shots that could have gone in if Cory Schneider did not make the save. Finally with 4:58 left in the period, he shot the puck past Schneider after retrieving the loose puck to give the Lightning a 2-1 lead. For good measure, he took Vatanen out with a hit that could be deemed dirty, even though it was a shoulder-to-shoulder hit.
It was the type of lift the Lightning needed after the Devils took it to them on Monday night by scoring four goals in the third period to give them a 5-2 Game 3 victory. It was the type of play that deflated the Devils’ momentum altogether. The Lightning needed Kucherov to be the best player on the ice on a night they needed the win heading to Game 5.
He played the way a leader should lead in a swing game or a big game that the team needs to win. He played like an elite player that should make his mark in the game. There was nothing the Devils could do about it.
Kucherov knew he had to do something. He knew a Lightning win can help them finish the Devils off Saturday when the series resumes at Amalie Arena. He also knew a Devils win changes the whole complexion of the series to the point the Devils can believe they can steal a win on the road and finish the Lightning off at home on Monday. He knew better than to see the Devils have hope, so he put it upon himself to be the driver instead of being a passenger in the series.
It wasn’t just the skill that the Lightning leading scorer brought to the ice for this game. It was the heart, desire, sweat and determination that he provided the team for a game that was a must-win game from his view. Having that intangible to add to that talent is a great thing for a team.
Kucherov’s first period had the Lightning in control. His leadership had the team relaxed by not playing fancy or overextending themselves for the rest of the game. All the Lightning had to do was play fundamental hockey by playing defense and getting quality goaltending, which they did. The Lightning’s penalty kill had the Devils go 1-for-6 on the power play overall.
All it took was one guy who wanted to be the guy that would take the team home. Kucherov was that guy. That’s why it was befuddling that he was not voted by the media for the Three Stars of the Game.
He couldn’t care less that he was not selected. All he cares is that his teammates and his coaches value his leadership and that he is one win away from going to the next round.
If the Devils had a vote, they would vote him as the No. 1 star of the game.