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Nikita Kucherov: Hockey Genius

It was a meaningless goal in the most important game thus far for Nikita Kucherov and the Tampa Bay Lightning. We all saw it.  Some of us still can’t believe we actually saw what we just saw. Yet it was definitely one that was going to make all the highlights.

It happened at 5:51 of the third period in Game 1 of the Eastern Conference Finals. The Lightning were already enjoying a comfortable 5-1 lead over the New York Islanders. Offsetting penalties put the teams in a four-on-four situation. For all intents and purposes, the game was over.  New York players were probably wishing for running time.

The Islanders were spread out in the Lightning zone. Kucherov, who has played well defensively in the playoffs, tipped an Islanders pass. The puck finds the stick of Kevin Shattenkirk. Kucherov and fellow forward Brayden Point begin skating towards New York’s zone.  Jail break time. Two Islander defenders were trying to match up with the two Lightning forwards.

Shattenkirk sauces a pass towards his streaking forwards.  At top speed, Point and Kucherov are attempting to break away from their defenders. The pass still saucing its way towards Point is in Kucherov’s peripheral. Here comes the magic.  Kucherov showed the hockey world what we here in Tampa already knew.  His play is light years ahead of many in the league.

Nothing Up My Sleeve

With the slightest turn of his wrist, Kucherov puts the blade of his stick parallel to the ice. That tiniest, almost undetectable move by the naked eye, pushed the puck ahead and right on the tape of Point’s stick. Now, Devon Toews, the man on Point has to get on his horse.  You see, he attempted to swat the Kucherov deflection not once but twice. Failing both times.

Now, Toews has to hightail it so Point doesn’t go in unopposed on Islanders goalie, Semyon Varlamov. Didn’t matter, as Toews tries in vain to catch up to Point, Kucherov gets inside position on Nick Leddy.  As a result of his positioning, Kucherov gives Point a huge target barreling down on the Islanders net.

All this is taking place in a matter of seconds. In a fraction of time, we mere mortals blink our eyes.  At the last possible moment, Point with some sauce of his own flicks the puck right on Kucherov’s blade.  Ready to receive the puck and holding off Leddy, Kucherov is about to do something special.

Kucherov taps the puck as it slowly slides In Varlamov’s five hole. Excellence. The whole dang play from Kucherov tipping the pass back in the Lightning zone to his goal. Every aspect of that sequence was incredible. Eddie Olczyk of NBC was amazed in real time. So was his colleague, Brian Boucher. Replay after replay they marveled at the ability of Kucherov and that slight turn of the wrist.  It made that goal possible.

Nikita Kucherov – Smartest Guy on the Ice

NHL commentator Kevin Weekes called Kucherov and this play “hockey genius”.  Tweeted out that Kucherov is a magician to which I replied: and his stick is his wand.  So, I watched this play again and again. Maybe he meant to do something else and got lucky.  As soon as those words entered my mind, I remembered something else. Thinking back to the 2018 All-Star game played in Tampa.

Back then, Kucherov unveiled his “no shot” shot against Braydon Holtby. After taking a pass from Steven Stamkos, Kucherov is moving in all alone on Holtby.  Stick handling moving the puck from forehand to backhand, Holtby focused on the stick blade.  Then it happened. It brought the house down. Amalie Arena rocked. Kucherov faked one last stick handle as the puck ever so slowly slid through Holtby’s five hole.  Did he mean to do that or was that a happy accident?  Nope, just hockey brilliance from Kucherov.  If I may quote Weekes: “Hockey Genius”.

To prove that his All Star theatrics weren’t an anomaly, Kucherov did the “no shot” shot again in a regular season game. His victim? Holtby one more time.  He did it again in a shootout in Buffalo.  Clearly, this wasn’t an accident.  This was purposeful.  Kucherov is playing five dimensional chess while playing the fastest game on earth.  His skills make it seem like his NHL opponents are playing Connect Four.

Been that Way for All This Time

Lightning analyst Brian Engblom has raved about the little things that Kucherov does on ice. His hockey IQ is off the charts, Engblom explains. He must be the Beautiful Mind of the NHL. How else do you explain what we see from Kucherov?  Again, if it was a one time thing maybe we’d forget. If something happens once, it’s an accident.  Twice? It’s a coincidence.  Three times?  Now you have a trend. Hundreds of plays like this?  Genius.

It is as if he is Picasso and the rest of the league is painting dogs playing poker by numbers.  Scratch that, he is Salvador Dali.  Kucherov seems to bend the rules of physics on ice like a Dali clock. Although Dali didn’t have a six foot three defenseman trying to take the brush out of his hand.

Lightning fans need to relish in the fact that they get to see Kucherov play for their side. Many of us have seen every NHL game he has played in his career. The meaningless goal will show up again.  Years from now when the highlight reel of his career is completed. One of the top plays we’ll see is the flick of the wrist past to Point. Then the five hole finish.  As I finished this article, I realized I may know something else.  Kucherov must be Russian for Hockey Genius.

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