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|Kucherov blossoming into star
11 марта 2015 года. ESPN. Pierre LeBrun.
MONTREAL -- Shift after shift on Tuesday night, the young man wearing No. 86 for the Tampa Bay Lightning dazzled with his dangles, the most dangerous skater on the ice and just too elusive for the Montreal Canadiens to hit.
Nikita Kucherov didn't register a point against the Habs, but once again showed how far his game has come in just his second NHL season, the 21-year-old winger from Moscow an absolute dynamo with his speed, skill and hockey sense.
"He was easily the best player on the ice tonight," Lightning goalie Ben Bishop said after a 1-0 overtime win over the Canadiens at the Bell Centre.
"It's fun to watch him, too," added Bishop. "As good as he is offensively, look at how hard he comes back and backchecks and picks guys off coming back. As a goalie you love seeing that. But he's so good, he's got some dangles. He's such a smart player. You can see him in the D-zone he already knows what he's going to do with the puck before he gets it, he rarely gets hit."
The architect of the Lightning, GM Steve Yzerman, isn't one for hyperbole. The look on his face after the game Tuesday night said enough when asked about Kucherov, the team's second-round pick (58th overall) in the 2011 NHL draft.
"He has a great work ethic, that's the thing a lot of people don't know," Yzerman said. "He's a great kid, he's got a great attitude."
Kucherov is third in team scoring with 56 points (25 goals, 31 assists), the leap in his development from his rookie year last season simply night and day.
Nikita Kucherov was Tampa's best player against the Canadiens, showcasing his entire skill set. Richard Wolowicz/Getty Images
"Last year I didn't know anything when I came here," Kucherov told ESPN.com rather bluntly after Tuesday's game. "I did a lot of turnovers and stuff like that. This year I'm focusing more on D-zone and not making turnovers. I feel more comfortable out there this year."
What's also clear is that he's won over his teammates.
"Last year was a big learning curve for Kuch," said superstar captain Steven Stamkos. "He was getting scratched but he stuck with it. He's an unbelievable kid. A lot of guys don't know him off the ice because he's still learning English. But he wants to get better every practice and every game. You can see it, he has the confidence now, that's something that's tough to come by in this league."
"Kuch is an amazing guy to watch play," added linemate Tyler Johnson, Tampa's leading scorer. "He can do some crazy things with the puck and he's so smart without it. He makes the game easier for me. He's a fun guy to play with."
Kucherov's growth from last season to this season is nothing short of outstanding.
"To be able to step right in at his age and grab a top-six role while playing with that kind of offensive creativity, that's not easy, that's impressive," one NHL scout who worked Tuesday night's game observed. "Because you know how coaches are in this league in terms of trust. It tells you a lot of about his hockey smarts being just as elevated as his skill."
Head coach Jon Cooper challenged Kucherov last season during those struggles and the player responded by showing up to camp ready this season.
"Kuch had that fork-in-the-road moment last year because when he came up, you could see the talent, but he always found himself on the wrong side of pucks," Cooper told ESPN.com after Tuesday's game. "He and I had some battles. I told him, 'Kuch, you can be a kid in this league that just gets by, or you can be a star.' And he came back this year, we weren't sure where he would fit into the lineup or if he would make our team and send him back. We just didn't know how he was going to come back."
Can you imagine? They didn't know if he'd make the team this season? And now he's got 56 points and he's one of the most electrifying players in the league.
Nikita Kucherov, center, has forged strong chemistry with Ondrej Palat and Tyler Johnson. Scott Audette/NHLI/Getty Images
"The one thing about Kuch, he understands now his offense can come from playing D," Cooper said. "He's always on the right side of pucks now, he's backchecking. Sure, does he make plays that makes you a little nervous? Yes, but he can make those plays and he's earned the leeway to do it. That's the thing, he earns the coach's trust."
Earlier in the season in Winnipeg, the team down two injured forwards, Cooper put Kucherov with Johnson and Ondrej Palat.
"And it just clicked," Cooper said with a smile. "I can't sit here and say I was the brain behind the whole thing. I wasn't smart enough to put them together, but I was smart enough not to split them up."
Palat got hurt Tuesday night, taking a shot to the foot, although Cooper said the initial look at it seems not too bad, so hopefully it's not serious. That's a line that's had unreal mojo this season.
"Those three guys have great chemistry together," Stamkos said. "And when that line is going, you can throw out any line and match up well. Depth has been a big reason for our success this year and that line is a big part of it as well."
Pick your poison is basically what you do with this Tampa team. You can't defend them all.
As if this lineup needed it, Tampa has yet another emerging star in Kucherov, who grew up with a poster of five Detroit Red Wings players you may have heard of.
"The Russian Five," Kucherov said with a smile. "It was a poster beside my bed."
It won't be long before it's a Kucherov poster that will don the walls of many Russian bedrooms.