Nikita Kucherov continues to be clutch for the Tampa Bay Lightning

ByJoe McDonald ESPN logo
Friday, May 13, 2016

NEW YORK -- Nikita Kucherov continues to be a clutch player for the Tampa Bay Lightning.

Something usually happens when the puck is on his stick, and for the second consecutive game, the 22-year-old forward provided the game-tying goal that forced overtime. Both times his teammates responded with a victory. After Kucherov scored at 7:49 of the third period in Game 4 Friday night, teammate Jason Garrison scored the winning goal at 1:34 of overtime to give the Lightning a 3-1 series lead.

The Lightning are now one win away from advancing to their second consecutive Eastern Conference finals.

Kucherov's stats are impressive, especially in the Stanley Cup playoffs. He has recorded at least a point in six of nine playoff games, and he has eight goals and three assists for 11 points in that span. In his past 35 playoff games, he has 18 goals and 15 assists for 33 points. After helping the Lightning to the Stanley Cup finals in 2015, before they lost to the Chicago Blackhawks, Kucherov continued his dominance during the 2015-16 regular season, leading the team in scoring with 30 goals and 36 assists for 66 points in 77 games.

"He's proving he's not a one-hit wonder," said Lightning coach Jon Cooper after Friday's victory at Barclays Center. "He did this last year in the playoffs. It carried into the regular season and [he] scores another 30 goals, and now you're playing on the biggest stage and he continues to amaze. It's pretty impressive."

After the game, Kucherov sat at this locker like nothing had happened, almost treating his team's victory as another day at the office.

"When you talk about not getting too high or too low, no panic, he kind of embodies that," said teammate Alex Killorn. "That's his personality. He doesn't react to things. He doesn't get too low. He always keeps us in games and we can always rely on him to at least get a couple of chances."

As one-third of the "Triplets Line" along with Tyler Johnson and Ondrej Palat, Kucherov might not wear his emotions on this sleeve, but he understands there's something missing from a season ago and a win in Game 4 is another step in achieving hockey's ultimate goal.

"It feels great," Kucherov said. "That was obviously not our best game. They came out hard in the third, especially in overtime, and it's nice to take that win. [Goalie Ben Bishop] did a good job and kept us in the game. We've always believed in ourselves, and it paid off."

For the Islanders, they have played two solid games and have nothing to show for it. When asked if he needed to change anything in preparation for Game 5, New York coach Jack Capuano couldn't come up with anything. He's pleased with the effort, just not the end result.

"The last two games have been good hockey games, and that's how close these two teams are," Capuano said. "Again, it's one shot away from taking the lead. I thought we played extremely well. We gave up five shots in the third period, maybe one chance and they tied the game. You can't ask our guys for too much more."

His players feel the same way.

"Probably our two best games of the playoffs, to be honest," said the Islanders' Matt Martin. "We were getting the bounces in the Florida series. Maybe they're getting a little more of the bounces right now. We've just got to fight through it. We can't be too frustrated. We don't have a whole lot of time to dwell on this one. Head out to Tampa [Saturday] and get ready for a must-win game."

Game 5 is Sunday at 3 p.m. ET at Amalie Arena. If the Islanders can't figure out a way to shut down Kucherov and beat Bishop, then their season is over.

"We're fine," said Islanders forward Ryan Strome. "We've got a lot of confidence in this group. Obviously our backs are against the wall, you can't deny that. But we're pretty resilient, we've gone through some ups and downs this year, individually and as a team. There's no doubt in my mind we'll have our best game of the year next game."

The Islanders can be sure Kucherov is thinking the same thing about his team.

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