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Is shutting down Nikita Kucherov a foolproof way of stopping Lightning?

SUNRISE — The pass was harmless, the punishment was not. This was late in the first period of Game 1 against Florida and Nikita Kucherov was about to pay the price for being one of the most dynamic playmakers in the NHL.

A split second after the puck left his stick, Kucherov took a glancing hit in the middle of the ice from Aleksander Barkov. Okay, it’s April. That’s going to happen. But then Vladimir Tarasenko followed with a forget-me-not thump that sent Kucherov sprawling to the ice.

In the regular season, that might have been an interference penalty.

Heck, in the regular season, Tarasenko may have skated past with a wink.

But not on Sunday. Not in the opening period of the playoffs. And definitely not with the risk Kucherov poses to the Panthers.

As the years have accumulated and the depth has dissipated, the Lightning have become more and more dependent on No. 86. That made for an historic regular season for Kucherov in 2023-24, but it could also make for a dicey postseason for Tampa Bay.

The evidence suggests the Lightning will go only as far as Kucherov can carry them, and they lost 3-2 in Game 1 on Sunday after the Panthers essentially shut down Tampa Bay’s top line.

The result was not unexpected — the Panthers are the No. 3 seed in the Eastern Conference and the Lightning are No. 6 — but the details might be concerning. The Lightning were surprisingly solid in 5-on-5 play. That’s good. And their somewhat shaky defense played fairly well. That’s even better.

But their offense revolves around Kucherov, and Florida is not the first team to take an aggressive approach to defending the 30-year-old Russian in the postseason. Based on past results, that would seem to be an effective game plan.

Since the start of the 2022 postseason, the Lightning are 8-1 (.889) when Kucherov scores in the playoffs. They are 8-13 (.380) when he does not. You might expect a similar trend with any team’s top scorer, but not to that extreme.

Which might explain why, halfway through the third period, coach Jon Cooper opted to shake things up by returning Brandon Hagel to the top line in place of Anthony Duclair. At that point, Kucherov, Duclair and Brayden Point had combined for just one shot on goal.

“There’s tons of different reasons why we do things in a game and why we change things up,” Cooper explained afterward. “There’s been a lot of chemistry with those guys before. I make decisions based on my gut at times, and that was one of them.”

Kucherov and Point did perform better in the final minutes, but that was greatly aided by the Lightning pulling goaltender Andrei Vasilevskiy for an extra skater combined with a late Panthers penalty.

You could make a strong argument that Tampa Bay’s second and third lines were as good as, or even better, than Florida’s in Game 1. And the Lightning power play was 1-for-2 compared to Florida going 1-for-3 with a man advantage.

All of that bodes well for the rest of the series.

But if the Lightning cannot figure out a way to get Kucherov and Point some room to work, it’s hard to imagine the series going Tampa Bay’s direction. Both players ended up minus-2 for the game.

“I think (the series) is going to look like this until somebody has to change the way they’re doing (things) because it’s just not working for them,” Florida coach Paul Maurice said. “There wasn’t enough sustained action for either team to say, ‘Yeah, we’ve got it.’ ”

The Lightning were outshot 28-19 with the Kucherov/Point line accounting for most of that discrepancy. Hagel suggested Tampa Bay might need to worry less about perfect shots, and instead fire away with the hope for tips and rebounds.

“I think we can get more pucks there and more bodies there. That’s the name of the game, that’s just simple stuff,” Hagel said. “Maybe we can give ourselves a few more looks.”

Did you know Kucherov was just the second player in the past 25 years to have had a hand in at least 50% of his team’s goals? When Kucherov failed to get either a goal or an assist, the Lightning lost nine of 13 games. That’s how much they depended on him.

Stats like that will go a long way toward Kucherov’s candidacy for the Hart Trophy for the league MVP.

And if Florida continues to hound Kucherov in the offensive end, those same stats could mean a quick playoff exit for the Lightning.

John Romano can be reached at jromano@tampabay.com. Follow @romano_tbtimes.

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