Nikita Kucherov joins 100-assists club in regular-season finale

TAMPA — Nikita Kucherov isn’t much for the spectacle, and he goes out of his way to shun the spotlight.

But the Lightning right wing couldn’t avoid it Wednesday night in the regular-season finale, and he gave in to the moment when he capped the best single-season performance in team history by joining one of the most elite clubs in hockey.

Whether Kucherov wins his second scoring title remains to be seen. And the verdict on whether he emerges from a tight Hart Trophy race with the league’s MVP award will have to wait. But Kucherov gave everyone at Amalie Arena reason to celebrate when he became the fifth player in NHL history to record a 100-assist season in the second period of the Lightning’s 6-4 victory over the Maple Leafs.

Kucherov’s primary assist on Brayden Point’s goal put him in an exclusive club that consists only of Wayne Gretzky (11 times), Mario Lemieux (once), Bobby Orr (once) and Connor McDavid (once). McDavid reached 100 assists Monday; before then, no player had reached the mark since Gretzky in 1990-91. Kucherov also became the first wing to reach the milestone.

“Thanks to my teammates and the coaching staff for putting me in position to have success,” Kucherov said. “I’m fortunate to be with great players and play with great players. It’s a good moment.”

The outcome of Wednesday’s game didn’t mean much, but two of the league’s top players were chasing history. Not only did Kucherov enter the night one assist shy of 100, but Toronto’s Auston Matthews was one goal from becoming the first American-born player to score 70, a feat that hadn’t been accomplished in 21 years.

The Lightning allowed four goals, including three in the final six minutes, but held Matthews scoreless. Matthews had 12 shots on goal, including seven in the first period, and he hit a crossbar in the second period. But at the end of the night, the league’s top goal scorer couldn’t put the puck past backup goaltender Matt Tomkins, a 29-year-old rookie making his sixth NHL start.

“That was a nice feather in the cap, I guess,” Tomkins said. “A little bit of a unique game where, you know, especially towards the end, that they were looking for him and wanting it for him. So a little bit challenging at times.”

But the night belonged to Kucherov.

“He’s a team-first guy and to see him (getting to an) individual achievement like that is awesome because he worked so hard for it,” Point said. “... Just to be a part of that and to be on a team with a guy doing that, making history really, it’s incredible and we’re all so happy for him.”

It was clear players on both teams were trying to set up their teammates for history, and Kucherov created his share of scoring chances throughout the first half of the night, including a Steven Stamkos one-timer attempt that pinged off the crossbar in the second period.

Kucherov, who has long been the catalyst of the Lightning’s top power-play unit, didn’t get an assist on either of the team’s first two man-advantage opportunities.

But on the third Lightning power play, Kucherov faked a one-timer shot from the right circle, drawing Toronto defenseman Simon Benoit to him, and tapped a pass into the slot where Point was open for a snap shot that beat Leafs goaltender Martin Jones to give the Lightning a 4-1 lead with 2:55 left in the second period.

“That’s a play that he likes to make and I just caught it and shot it and hoped it went in,” Point said. “He gave me two looks in the slot earlier in the period that Jones made saves on. I was a little nervous and then I really wanted it for him.”

Kucherov quickly disappeared into a celebration circle. Nick Paul, who scored the Lightning’s first goal of the night, retrieved the puck from the back of the net, and Kucherov allowed a rare smile when he received hugs from his teammates as he made his way back to the Lightning bench to chants of “M-V-P” from the Amalie Arena crowd.

“That was cool,” Kucherov said of hearing the crowd.

Injured defenseman Mikhail Sergachev, one of Kucherov’s best friends, emerged from the tunnel to congratulate him, and once play was about to resume, Kucherov made his way to the end of the bench and put his arm around Point, his long-time linemate.

When coach Jon Cooper checked his phone after the game, he found a text message from Gretzky, complimenting Kucherov on the achievement.

“He gave — the class act that he is — just glowing comments about Nikita Kucherov,” Cooper said. “It was pretty cool.”

Cooper said that watching Kucherov cap a historic season in such a manner was an experience he will always remember. Kucherov ended the season with 144 points, the second-highest total since 1995-96. McDavid scored 153 points last season.

“When you start getting into rare air, which Kuch is right now, I can’t say it enough, you never know how many times this is ever going to come around,” Cooper said. “When he had 128 points or whatever it was in 2019, did I think he’s going to get to that again? I wasn’t quite sure. But he’s surpassed that and more, and like a fine wine, he’s gotten better with age.

“It’s impressive to watch and everybody should cherish it. You’ll remember where you were tonight when that happened. We watched a little piece of history. That’s awesome.”

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