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Nikita Kucherov’s Skating At You With A Full Head Of Steam. What Do You Do?

TORONTO, ON - MAY 14: Nikita Kucherov #86 of the Tampa Bay Lightning skates against the Toronto Maple Leafs during Game Seven of the First Round of the 2022 Stanley Cup Playoffs at Scotiabank Arena on May 14, 2022 in Toronto, Ontario, Canada. ( Photo by Claus Andersen/Getty images) *** Local Caption *** Nikita Kucherov
Claus Andersen/Getty Images

I’ll tell you what I’d do. I’d instantly and thoroughly pee myself, curl up into a little fetal ball on the ice, play dead, and hope for the best. It’s called the opossum defense and I just invented it. (OK, maybe late-career Wade Redden invented it, but I’ve perfected it.)

But you are not me. You are Aaron Ekblad, top-pairing defenseman for the Florida Panthers, fringe Norris candidate, former first overall pick. You play hockey for a living, and you are very good at it. You rarely if ever urinate out of fear during a game. Though you match up against opponents’ top scoring lines, you seldom get beaten and basically never get embarrassed. You have internalized the old saw about playing a puckhandler’s hips, not the puck. (Thank you for subscribing to Defector, Aaron, by the by.)

Ah, but Nikita Kucherov is something else. He is a breakneck skater, once finishing second to Connor McDavid in the fastest-skater competition. He is an otherworldly stickhandler. He is a variegated scorer, comfortable in the slot or down low, so you can’t anticipate where he’s going. He’s also perfectly happy setting up someone else. There’s no telling what he’s going to do, and he’s got open ice, you’ve got no help, and he’s bearing down on you, Aaron, at nearly 25 MPH. What do you do?

OK, you get walked. Not ideal.

“It was effortless,” Lightning coach Jon Cooper said, after Kucherov undressed Ekblad on the power play before finding Corey Perry for the easy-mode tip-in. “What we’ve always said about Kuch is, he knows what the guy he’s going against is going to do before they do. He made that play look easy.”

“That’s a world-class play, a helluva play,” said Perry. “Inside-out on the D-man and side door. I shake my head sometimes.”

The move was pretty subtle: Kucherov looked right and stood up a little bit, as if he was either going to cut across the middle or give up the puck. He did neither, committing outside the zeptosecond Ekblad bit inside. Perhaps Ekblad had been thinking about what happened just 21 seconds earlier, when Kucherov, one-on-one with MacKenzie Weegar, did in fact accelerate inside, forcing a flat-footed Weegar into hooking him and giving Tampa the man advantage.

Kucherov scored a goal of his own later on, a power-play shot through traffic to give the Lightning some insurance in what would eventually be a 4-1 win in Game 1. Tampa’s leading point-scorer in each of their last two Cup runs, Kucherov is going to play an especially pivotal role in this Battle of Florida, especially if Brayden Point, injured in Game 7 against Toronto and whose return is unclear, is out for a while. So far, so good.