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The time is right for Lightning’s Nikita Kucherov to get his ovation

TAMPA — Connor McDavid beat him to glory. Fitting, wouldn’t you say?

For most of his hockey career, Nikita Kucherov has been one step beyond the spotlight. One smile shy of beloved. One Steven Stamkos away from owning this rabid, little hockey market.

So when it came time to matching an NHL standard that had not been seen in more than 30 years, of course the glamorous prodigy in Edmonton notched his 100th assist a scant 48 hours before Kucherov could get one last attempt in the regular-season finale against Toronto.

That’s just the way things seem to go for Kucherov and, for that, maybe we should be thankful.

You see, Kucherov is ours. All ours. We’ve never shared him with the talking heads on hockey’s biggest TV shows, even after he won the Hart Trophy as the league MVP in 2019. We’ve never seen him faking his way through commercials. We’ve never needed him to be more than what he has been to the Lightning and the community.

And that is one of the best dang playmakers the world has known.

We’ve always been aware of that, but the race to 100 assists just confirms it. Of the thousands of players who have reached the NHL in the past century, only Bobby Orr, Wayne Gretzky and Mario Lemieux have ever had a season of 100 assists. Well, those three and now McDavid.

“Just look at the names that have gotten 100 assists: Wayne Gretzky, Mario Lemieux and Bobby Orr. Those guys played how long ago? And he’s potentially on the brink of doing it now,” said Lightning forward Brandon Hagel. “There’s been so many NHL players, great players, that have come into the league and have never been able to do something like that.

“His vision is out of this world. He slows the game down so much. You know, every team puts their best players on the power play, and we’ve had the No. 1 power play in the league this year. And it’s all because of him.”

Categorizing Kucherov has always been a bit of a challenge. He’s not as fast as some, not as physical as others. He can shoot, he can skate, he can handle the puck, but his real talent is looking at a sheet of ice the way Van Gogh might have looked at a blank canvas. Kucherov sees things others can’t imagine.

His passes come from here, there and everywhere. Playing on a line with Kucherov means being ready to have the puck arrive from any angle at any moment. And that’s why the 100 assists would be the most appropriate milestone to punctuate a near-certain Hall of Fame career.

In a recent game against Columbus, the Lightning pushed the puck quickly up the ice. Kucherov looks to his left as he skates through the neutral zone and sees the pass go behind him to Anthony Duclair. He turns and goes full speed toward the net, and Duclair pushes the puck to him just as he reaches the faceoff circle. With a defender on his back, Kucherov plays the puck off his skate, puts it on his stick and then does a 360-degree turn as he passes behind him to Brayden Point for an open shot at the net.

There did not appear to be even one moment, after crossing the center line, that Kucherov looked in Point’s direction. And yet he delivered the puck in the exact spot for a one-timer while still skating at a high speed the other way.

“He’s two or three steps ahead of everybody,” said forward Anthony Cirelli. “He’s always thinking about the next play, or the play after that. You can see it on the ice; he just knows where guys are, he knows who the open guy is and he always finds a way to hit him. He knows where to find the open space, and you can see the results in the number of points and assists he has.”

He’s never been gregarious, or particularly warm. He seems unconcerned with his image and that indifference could cost him when it comes to what is expected to be a tight race for the Hart Trophy.

Buit here’s the bottom line on Kucherov’s 2023-24 season:

His 142 points lead the NHL and are the second-most by any player in the last 25 years. The 142 points are the third-most by any wing in NHL history, according to Hockey Reference, trailing only Jaromir Jagr and Mike Bossy.

“He’s one of the best players in the world,” general manager Julien BriseBois said earlier this season, “and every night I’m glad he’s wearing our jersey.”

Kucherov began this morning as a superstar. No different from any other Stanley Cup-engraving, MVP-winning, All-Star-grumbling icon.

And by tonight, he may well have moved on to take his seat next to a select group of legends.

Table for five, please.

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

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