Nikita Kucherov missed all of training camp and the entire 56-game regular season schedule due to hip surgery, but when Tampa Bay needed all hands on deck in Game 1 against the Florida Panthers, 'Kuch' was there. For some fans in the hockey world, Kucherov's recovery timeline (and subsequent cap relief for the Lightning) was a little too convenient, though other players who have gone through similar procedures vouched for the process.
Either way, with two power play goals and three points in the opening win, Kucherov gave his teammates a boost.
"You can tell his presence gives the whole team a lot of confidence," said defenseman Victor Hedman. "From the start he had jump and made some great plays: two goals, three points – that says it all about what kind of player 'Kuch' is; he's a clutch player. It's very impressive to see him come out and deliver like that in the first game back. The scary part is he's only going to get better."
Coach Jon Cooper joked that the only thing holding back Kucherov and Steven Stamkos (also returning from injury, though not a season-long absence) were their "legs and their lungs." And even with his remarkable season debut, Kucherov's stamina during these playoffs will be something to watch.
Stamkos, a bit of an aficionado on returning from big injuries while being an elite player, believes his buddy will be fine.
"You can always fall back on your preparation and there's no one more prepared than 'Kuch,' " he said. "This guy is on the ice all the time working on his craft. There's a reason why he's one of the best in the world – there's a correlation there."
It's impossible to oversell just what Kucherov means to the complexion of this Lightning outfit. With him and Stamkos back on the power play, Tampa Bay is lethal and that was on full display against the Panthers in Game 1 with the Lightning scoring on three out of four power play opportunities. Kucherov scored both his goals from a near-identical spot with that wicked shot of his, but with Tampa Bay presenting so many weapons on the man advantage, the Panthers will truly have to pick their poison in this series.
As for Kucherov himself, the potent winger is still getting used to his physical situation.
"A new hip is a new hip; it's different," he said. "I'm better and I feel really good. I was excited to get back in the game and be with the boys. I've been waiting for this for a long time and it's nice to get this one out of the way and focus on the next game."
Kucherov's extended absence did allow Tampa Bay to squeeze a ton of talent in under the cap, which immediately re-ignited social media when he started burying goals in Game 1. But even in the unlikely event Tampa Bay conspired to keep him off the ice until the playoffs – where the salary cap doesn't matter – it would have been a very dangerous game to play.
Sure, everyone expected the Bolts to make the post-season even without Kucherov, but what if star goalie Andrei Vasilevskiy got hurt along the way, or top center Brayden Point? As it is, the Lightning finished third in the division, but there's an alternate timeline where the Dallas Stars win a few more games and Tampa Bay's injury luck worsens, causing the Lightning to drop out of the playoff picture.
And the fact of the matter is, Tampa Bay broke no league rules. The Lightning were deep enough that they could faithfully trudge on without Kucherov for 56 games and sure enough, they did so successfully. Now, with no salary cap to worry about, the Bolts have their superstar back and Game 1 went swimmingly.
That's bad news for the rest of the playoff field, but great news for Lightning fans.