Do Lightning seek revenge, or will Florida continue bashing Kucherov?

TAMPA — Game 4 has been put to rest. The ugliness could live on.

It was late in the third period Saturday night and the Lightning were on a power play with a 5-3 lead. Nikita Kucherov and Panthers defenseman Brandon Montour were battling for the puck when Kucherov fell with Montour leaning on his back.

Nothing wrong with that. Just normal hockey aggression.

Except, on his way down, Montour very obviously shifted his stick, put all his weight on Kucherov with both skates off the ice and gave a cross check to the back of the neck that knocked Kucherov’s helmet off.

Two thoughts:

1. Remarkable that game officials decided it was merely a minor penalty.

2. Even more remarkable that the Lightning failed to address it in the final minutes.

Oh, Tampa Bay answered with a 5-on-3 goal that put the score out of reach. And Tanner Jeannot was inserted in the final 93 seconds and picked up two hits and a roughing penalty, but it’s not as if the Lightning sent a strong message warning the Panthers about cheap shots.

And the timing would have been perfect since there was little time remaining and a three-goal lead.

“Everybody is going to get hit in this league. There’s nobody who is, quote-unquote, untouchable. Maybe a little bit in the regular season, but definitely not in the playoffs,” Lightning coach Jon Cooper said. “One thing about Kuch: they try to hit him and he’s hitting everybody back.

“That kid doesn’t back down. He’s got nerves of steel, he’s got guts and, like I said (Saturday) night, I thought he had a huge impact on our game in a positive way. You’re looking for your big guns to step up and help you win hockey games, Kuch definitely did that.”

All true. It was Kucherov’s best game of the series with three assists, all with the primary pass.

But it’s also true that Florida has been targeting Kucherov since the series opener with the Montour hit reaching a new crescendo. Nothing particularly wrong with making a star earn his space on the ice, but there’s a huge difference between intimidation and intent to injure.

And, truth is, this is nothing new for Kucherov in the postseason.

You could go all the way back to 2019 when Columbus dogged Kucherov all over the arena — even inducing the frustrated winger to commit a boarding penalty that got him suspended for one game — in a first-round sweep. Two years later, Islanders defenseman Scott Mayfield cross-checked Kucherov in Game 6 of the Eastern Conference final and sent him to the locker room with a fractured rib.

The problem is the NHL essentially condones this nonsense by not cracking down on offenders. There is no way you can watch video of Montour’s hit and not come to the conclusion that it was beyond the pale. A cross check to the back of the neck of a player on his knees is inexcusable at any time of the season.

“Kuch is a tough guy,” said Lightning forward Anthony Cirelli. “I’m sure they’re trying to do stuff to kind of get him rattled but Kuch is really composed. He’s done it every year. He knows how to take those things at this time of the year and he’s just going to keep on going out there and doing what he’s doing.”

Kucherov’s toughness is not the issue. His ability to take a hit is beside the point.

The question is whether the NHL wants its stars sprawled on the ice at the most important time of the year. Is the league so enamored with its toughest-trophy-in-sports image that it tacitly approves of violence by looking the other way?

It’s not as if this is out of character. The Panthers were second in the NHL in penalties taken during the regular season and led the league in misconduct penalties. Part of their reputation for great defense is their willingness to hit, but that should not extend to goon-like behavior.

By looking the other way, the NHL is putting the Lightning in an awkward position going into Game 5.

Do you risk a power play or a suspension by sending someone after Montour? Or do you allow the Panthers to continue abusing the Art Ross Trophy winner knowing that the Lightning would be lost without him?

The simple answer is the NHL should step in before it goes too far.

Good luck with that.

John Romano can be reached at Follow @romano_tbtimes.

• • •

Sign up for the Sports Today newsletter to get daily updates on the Bucs, Rays, Lightning and college football across Florida.

Never miss out on the latest with your favorite Tampa Bay sports teams. Follow our coverage on Instagram, X and Facebook.