For a defending Cup champ returning most of its talent, the Tampa Bay Lightning had a remarkably quiet regular season. I don’t mean that they weren’t good, but rather that they’ve been surprisingly easy to ignore. Their 36-17-3 record was eminently respectable-to-enviable, but they found themselves a little lost in the wake of the ascension of the Hurricanes, who are a sexier, more personality-driven team, and the long-awaited breakthrough of the Panthers, who have been one of hockey’s best stories. It’s easy enough to chalk this relative anonymity up to boredom—they’ve won their title and we know their stories; there’s new blood to fawn over—but, I submit, there might be a simpler excuse. Why try to extrapolate anything about the Lightning when they were missing their single biggest weapon, but would get him again for the playoffs? The Lightning we saw this year is not the same Lightning from the last Cup run, nor is it the one we’ll see for this cup run. The Lightning aren’t the Lightning without Nikita Kucherov.
And now, I suppose, the Lightning are the Lightning again. Kucherov, perennial MVP candidate and latent Conn Smythe contender, returned to the ice for his first appearance since Sept. 28—the day Tampa lifted the Cup. The 27-year-old winger had hip surgery in December and was placed on long-term IR, which, conspiracy theorists gleefully noted, gave the Lightning salary cap relief and allowed them to run back so much of their cast from last year. (It was a silly theory, because no amount of cap relief is worth not having Nikita Kucherov on the ice. This man had 128 damn points in his last full-length season.)
But there Kucherov was on Sunday, a week or two ahead of earlier prognoses, lining up for Game 1 against the Panthers, in what would prove to be a thrilling 5-4 Lightning win that was just the fourth NHL playoff game in history to have four lead changes. But perhaps even more important for Tampa’s long-term prospects than the result was how Kucherov looked in his return to action. Would he need a few games to shake off the rust? Oh, buddy, no way. If anything, he was fresh.
Kucherov played 19:21 of first-line minutes, scoring twice and assisting on a third, all on a Lightning power play that suddenly looks more dangerous than ever. The secondary helper on each of Kucherov’s goals came from Steven Stamkos, who himself missed the final 16 games of the regular season with a lower-body injury. The primary assist on each went to Victor Hedman, the defending Conn Smythe winner who’s actually having an underwhelming season (by his sky-high standards). But everything looks different with these three healthy and on the same unit. All three can and do share quarterbacking duties, and all three have deadly shots that are threats from anywhere, and force opponents to put bodies on them, which by pure basic math frees up someone in open ice. Twice last night, that was Kucherov. (How in the hell do you defend this unit? Late in the third, with a couple bodies between him and the net, Kucherov casually found Brayden Point with a filthy pass that offered him a wide-open goal.)
Kucherov’s PP partners were ecstatic to have him back, but unsurprised that he already appears all the way back.
“You fall back on your preparation,” Stamkos said, “and no one is more prepared than Kuch. This guy is on the ice all the time working on his craft. There’s a reason why he’s one of the best in the world. There’s a correlation here. When I saw him this morning, he was just calm and smiling and laughing—the same old Kuch.”
“The scary part is that he’s only going to get better,” added Hedman.
One game is just one game, and the Battle of Florida is already shaping up to be a doozy of a series, arguably between two of the best five or six teams in the NHL. But the Lightning at full strength are a tremendous machine, and Kucherov makes it hum. Since his debut in 2014 Kucherov has now scored 38 playoff goals, which ties him with Alex Ovechkin for most in the league. You might do well to just throw out the regular season and consider this Tampa team a direct continuation of last year’s Cup run.