Published On: Thu, Apr 19th, 2018

Nikita Kucherov shows his physical side in Game 4 win over Devils

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NEWARK, N.J. – In a season where Nikita Kucherov established himself as one of the top offensive threats in the league, the Tampa Bay Lightning winger also displayed a more cantankerous side than in past years.

Kucherov was popped five times apiece for holding and slashing, three times for hooking, twice for roughing, and once each for cross-checking, delay of game, elbowing, high-sticking, interference, and tripping. That’s 21 minor penalties for a career-high 42 penalty minutes – garden-variety stuff for a player who had his first 100-point season. Basically, every four games or so, Kucherov made a mistake and wound up in the penalty box.

It happened again in Game 4 of the first round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs against the New Jersey Devils on Wednesday. Kucherov got called for holding in the second period, which negated a Lightning power play.

It was not the hold, however, that made Devils coach John Hynes so furious that he held an 82-second postgame press conference after Kucherov’s two goals and an assist had led the Lightning to a 3-1 victory and a 3-1 series lead.

“I don’t have any comment on it,” Hynes said of the Kucherov hit that knocked New Jersey’s best defenseman, Sami Vatanen, out of the game. “It does me no good to get into it.”

The collision happened late in the first period, after Kucherov had assisted on J.T. Miller’s tying goal, then scored the tiebreaker himself. Vatanen was in his own zone, likely intending to circle back behind the net after receiving the puck from defense partner Andy Greene, when Kucherov skated into the Finn’s path and blasted him with a high, hard hit – one that was judged clean by referees Wes McCauley and Tim Peel.

“It’s just the way the game is in the playoffs,” Kucherov said. “Too much physical games, there’s not space, and you might sometimes throw a hit. … I didn’t want to hurt him, but if I see a guy with the puck, I’m going to finish (the hit). I’m not doing it a lot, but sometimes, you might as well just throw it.”

(Photo courtesy: Getty Images)

As much as the play enraged the Devils, it was an important moment for the Lightning – a bigger takeaway from Game 4 than the fact that Kucherov scored his third and fourth goals of the series. After all, he scored 39 times in the regular season, so that was nothing new. But Kucherov being a physical force? That was something different.

“He’s normally the one dancing around guys,” Miller said. “I couldn’t believe it was him. I was right behind him, and that’s a big-league hit right there. That’s the type of player he is. He’s competitive. He wants to win really bad. Obviously, he’s such an important player for us.”

It was Miller who was put on Kucherov’s line with Steven Stamkos to be the power forward and accentuate the skills of Tampa Bay’s two all-world wingers. After a sloppy 5-2 loss in Game 3, seeing Kucherov – all 5-foot-11 and 178 pounds of him – playing the heavy Wednesday sent a message to his teammates: It was time to take things to another level.

In the final two periods, already in the lead, the Lightning outshot the Devils 25-15, with three penalties for each team. That’s how Tampa Bay wanted to play, re-centering itself after Monday’s defeat.

“Kuch flexed his muscles,” Lightning coach Jon Cooper said. “He’s been pretty dynamic on the power play, but tonight he was, I thought, all around, he was the best player on the ice. When you’re playing on both sides of the puck, you’re contributing offensively, defensively, you’re physical, you’re engaged, it did nothing but lift our team. He’s a big part of why we won.”

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