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All-star weekend shines spotlight on the Lightning – and puts a target on their back

Sunday’s 3-on-3 tournament showcased the sublime talent of Nikita Kucherov and his Tampa teammates. But now they must focus on avoiding complacency as the East’s kingpin in the second half.

TAMPA – Lightning owner Jeff Vinik and the NHL couldn’t have storyboarded a better scene for Sunday’s NHL All-Star Game at Amalie Arena: Nikita Kucherov, gliding around his home ice, serenaded with a chorus of “KUUUUCH!” while it rained hats from the fans – and helmets from his Atlantic Division teammates, thanks to an idea cooked up by his coach Jon Cooper. Kucherov had just scored his third goal for the Atlantic Division in the semifinal of the 3-on-3 tournament, freezing Capitals goaltender Braden Holtby. Did Kucherov lose the puck mid-deke or did he pull off the best accidental-on-purpose magic trick since Mario Lemieux’s “missed” pass at the 2002 Salt Lake City Olympics?

Definitely the former. As Cooper and Lightning captain Steven Stamkos pointed out after the game, Kucherov had used that move before and perfected it.

“He’s a magical player,” Cooper said. “He used that move once in a shootout against Buffalo, and I wasn’t sure if we were going to see it again. But that was in a shootout, so you had time to think about it. This one he didn’t really have time to think about but still pulled it off.”

What do you call that move, anyway? Kucherov, always humble despite arguably being the 2017-18 Hart Trophy frontrunner, couldn’t come up with a moniker.

“That’s your job,” he said Sunday night. “You guys come up with it.”

The Atlantic all-stars didn’t even end up winning Sunday’s 3-on-3 tournament or the $1-million team prize, losing to the Pacific Division 5-2 in the final, and Kucherov didn’t even win the All-Star Game MVP, as Vancouver Canucks right winger Brock Boeser took that home. But it was pretty clear Kucherov’s hat trick and cheeky third goal formed the moment people will remember from the day.

“It doesn’t surprise us in here,” Stamkos said. “We see how good he is every day. But I was pretty excited when it went in. This game’s broadcast all over the world, and sometimes you don’t get to see the guys who play in places like Tampa as much. ‘Kuch’ put on a show for the fans, and it was fun to be part of.”

Kucherov started the semifinal game with Stamkos and two more Lightning teammates, center Brayden Point and goalie Andrei Vasilevskiy, to form an all-Tampa lineup. And the weekend was a microcosm of Tampa Bay’s season: the spotlight shines brightly on the Bolts now, and their talent is too great to ignore. They are the team to beat in the NHL in the second half.

And that can be scary. Just ask the Washington Capitals, who’ve gotten used to flying out to massive leads in the standings, warring with complacency in the stretch run of recent seasons and bombing out early in the playoffs to teams that had to claw their way up the standings. The scalding-hot Bruins still threaten to win the Atlantic, five points back with two games in hand, but the Lightning virtually locked down a playoff spot long ago. Under the NHL’s current divisional format, at least three teams from every division reach the post-season, and a jaw-dropping 25 points separate the Bolts from the fourth-place Detroit Red Wings. Even the third-place Toronto Maple Leafs are 10 points back with two more games played than the Lightning, meaning they’re practically guaranteed home ice for Round 1 already.

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So now comes the hard part: staying focused after a dream first half and euphoric all-star weekend as host. Now GM Steve Yzerman must evaluate what his team needs. A right-shot defenseman to play in the top four? A checking center who can win faceoffs? A better backup goalie for the heavily worked Vasilevskiy? Just a few ideas to consider. The Lightning sit in an ideal Stanley Cup window at the moment, with many of their star players – Stamkos, Victor Hedman, Ondrej Palat and Tyler Johnson, for example – signed to long-term deals, while soon-to-be richer Kucherov and Point won’t need extensions until the 2019-20 seasons. That puts Tampa in a prime spot to take on salary and add to its powerhouse roster this winter if Yzerman decides his team has holes to plug.

The Bolts will leave the joy of all-star weekend behind and board a plane to battle another first-place team, the Winnipeg Jets, this Tuesday. They’ll do so minus the injured Palat and Hedman. Their mettle will be tested, and they’ll have to find their intensity while also evaluating what they need to complete a Stanley Cup puzzle.

“We like what’s happening, but we know it’s a long way to go,” Cooper said. “The All-Star Game is a break, it’s a celebration of the game, but it’s also your ‘dig your heels in the sand’ time now. Once you come out of this break, people start looking at the standings. Where are they sitting? Are they on top? Are they on the cusp? The general manager is looking. Are they making moves? Are they not? So this is a big busy time for us as teams but also for general managers, and the hockey picks up now.”