‘A unique, special talent:’ How Nikita Kucherov became one of the NHL’s best

    Greg Wyshynski is ESPN’s senior NHL writer.

TAMPA BAY — Nikita Kucherov doesn’t exactly have a poker face.

“He’s the type of guy where you can tell when things are going good or not going good, on and off the ice, based on his body language,” said ESPN analyst Ryan Callahan, Kucherov’s former linemate with the Tampa Bay Lightning.

Things were going good for Kucherov in Game 3 of the Eastern Conference finals. Captain Steven Stamkos saw it from the very first shift.

“You can hear the chatter on the bench when he’s coming off [the ice]. The guys knowing that your best player is ‘on’ in a huge game. He was part of setting the tone. Then you look at the end of the game, and he’s contributed to every goal and made great plays on all of them,” Stamkos said.

Kucherov scored a goal and assisted on two others to lead the Lightning’s rally from a two-goal deficit. He was active defensively and engaged to the point of antagonism, giving New York Rangers goalie Igor Shesterkin a slash on the back of the leg that was characterized by Rangers coach Gerard Gallant as “the dirt behind the play” in Game 3.

“For everybody, it’s important to step up and elevate your game. You’re down 2-0. You’re on home ice. You want to play better than you did in the first two games,” Kucherov said after the win.

Game 1 saw Kucherov earn a minus-2 and fail to generate a point. His frustration was evident and palpable. His reaction to that effort was expected by his teammates.

“If he doesn’t feel like it’s up to his standards, the next game is usually a really good one,” Stamkos said.

The Lightning have scored five goals since Game 1. Kucherov has a point on all of them.

NHL fans have come to know this version of Kucherov:

  • He has the second-highest regular-season points-per-game average behind Connor McDavid over the past three seasons, winning the Hart Trophy as league MVP in 2018-19.

  • He has amassed an incredible 88 points in 65 playoff games, helping to lead the Lightning to back-to-back Stanley Cup wins.

  • He is unshaken by adversity, and vexations are temporary at best.

But it wasn’t always like this for Kucherov.

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