Nikita Kucherov making MVP case in Lightning’s unlikely rebound

NEW YORK – The raspy voice of Steven Tyler singing an Aerosmith power ballad filled the Tampa Bay Lightning locker room, as the players removed their gear after practice at Madison Square Garden:

“Aaaaaaand I don’t wanna miss a thing …”

So what’s the accidental, narrative-framing meaning here?

That the Lightning’s late-season push back into the postseason picture is fueled by the burning desire not to miss the playoffs for the first time in four full seasons under Jon Cooper? Or that their injuries, plus their early season stumbles, plus the ground they need to make up have them headed for Armageddon?

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“The part that’s tough about this is that we don’t have any margin for error. If this had happened to the Capitals or the Penguins or Columbus or the Rangers, you weather through it because they’ve created a point cushion for themselves. We haven’t,” said Cooper.

Their lineup is missing Steven Stamkos, Ryan Callahan, Tyler Johnson and Cedric Paquette due to injury; and Ben Bishop, Valtteri Filppula and Brian Boyle due to casualty, of the cap variety.

“We’re not giving up. That’s not the message. It’s a business, and we get that. It’s tough to see those guys go, but we have to keep pushing,” said defenseman Victor Hedman. “The (AHL) Syracuse guys have been helping a lot. They’re a part of this team now. And everyone in this room has to up their game.”

Despite all this, the Lightning are three points out of the wild card and five points out of third in the Atlantic (with a game in-hand on the Boston Bruins). And while everyone from goalie Andrei Vasilevskiy to the kids up from Syracuse have been pulling the rope, one guy has the rope over his shoulder, trying to drag this leaky vessel to the dock:

Nikita Kucherov, perhaps the NHL’s least talked-about but most deserving Hart Trophy candidate.

In 60 games, Kucherov is second only to Evgeni Malkin and Sidney Crosby of the Pittsburgh Penguins (1.18) in points per game average with 1.12.

That’s better than Connor McDavid; and like McDavid, who is 19 points better than the Edmonton Oilers’ second-leading scorer, Kucherov is on another planet as a goal-scorer compared to his teammates: He’s scored 31, tied with Auston Matthews for seventh in the NHL.

He has 49 points in the Lightning’s 29 wins. His 55.23-percent Corsi is the best on the Lightning at 5-on-5 for any player with more than 20 games.

So … Hart candidate, if the Lightning make the cut?

“You’re asking the wrong guy,” said Cooper. “I know on this team he’s our Hart Trophy candidate. When we needed him most, which is this last stretch here of 15 games, we’ve jumped on his back. I’d be remiss to not mention Vasilevskiy, who’s also been great. But you talk about most valuable players to their team, especially down the stretch, that’s been Kuch.”

***

In the Lightning’s last 16 games, Kucherov has 23 points. That includes 12 goals, seven of them coming on the power play.

Now, there’s this weird thing that happens in the NHL sometimes with goal-scorers where their stats are considered a little counterfeit if the goal totals are inflated by empty-net goals – which means they’re important enough to be on the ice in the most critical defensive sequence of the game – and by power-play goals.

Kucherov is tied with Wayne Simmonds and Brayden Schenn for the NHL lead in power-play goals with 14. In the context of the season, that’s a lot. It also means he’s 35th in even-strength goals, while fellow Hart candidates like Sidney Crosby (23) and Patrick Kane (24) and Auston Matthews (and NHL best 26) are in the top 10 for EV goals.

Not that the Lightning really care how these pucks are going in, as long as they’re going in. He’s on pace to double his power-play output year-to-year.

“I like to shoot the puck,” said Kucherov. “I’m just getting there. Guys are making good plays.”

Kucherov’s deadly shot on the power play has been well-documented this season, including a hat trick that looked like the same replay played on a loop:

Kucherov said he’s worked on his shot a lot in the last year, and continues to refine it. His coach said that it’s been a combination of the player’s improvement and the team’s deployment of him that’s made the difference.

“It’s been a little bit of both. Part of it is the player. He’s got more experience in the League. He’s learned what you can do, what you can’t do, what you can get away with. His shot’s gotten better. He’s vision. But [Todd Richards] has done a great job on the power play, putting him in the best position to score,” said Copper.

“But the onus is on the player, and he’s just taken it to the next level.

***

The Lightning are running out of runway.

They know it.

They have 15 games left. They have nine playoff teams on their schedule. They have eight home games remaining. They have two brutal back-to-backs, going at the Rangers on Monday and then at the Ottawa Senators; and then at the Boston Bruins and then at the Detroit Red Wings (if Cooper had his way, he probably wants those reversed). They do have Boston and Toronto twice each, which become must-wins. And Cooper is trying to manage his goaltending with that in mind, thus giving Peter Budaj a shot against the Rangers despite Vasilevskiy playing lights-out recently.

“We’ve had a lot of success with Vasilevskiy, playing him every second or third day. When he went through this stretch of playing back to backs in December, I don’t know if it was too much, too soon … or we weren’t good in front of him, he wasn’t at the top of his game,” said Cooper.

“You have to understand that our No. 1 goal is to make the playoffs. But our goaltender is young, and developing. We’ve got him in a really good groove here, and there’s no sense in breaking that groove. He still has a lot of games to play.”

Then there’s the X-Factor: Steven Stamkos.

He’s skating, though not in a full practice. He’s in the room, though not available to the media. (One assumes he’s grown tired of the “what’s the progress report?” questions he faced daily last postseason.)

“He’s such a positive presence on this team,” said Hedman. “It’s good for this team to see him. See him skate, shoot the puck, it’s good for us. And it’s good for him, I imagine. To travel, to feel like a hockey player again.”

What’ll be even better is when he’s back on the ice, making things happen offensively. It seems like a lifetime ago, but Stamkos and Kucherov started the season on the same line, and the latter helped the former to 20 points in 17 games.

“It’s nice to see Stammer on the ice,” said Kucherov. “He gives me hope that he’s coming back.”

Hope was in short order for the Lightning at times this season. Having Nikita Kucherov carry them as he’s carried them in the last month helped restore it.

Greg Wyshynski is a writer for Yahoo Sports. Contact him at puckdaddyblog@yahoo.com or find him on Twitter. His book, TAKE YOUR EYE OFF THE PUCK, is available on Amazon and wherever books are sold.

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