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Nikita Kucherov makes it look easy by working hard

The Tampa Bay Lightning right winger is pulverizing the scoring race in the NHL and his team is strong enough to warrant Stanley Cup favorite status. But don't take that to mean he's going to ease up at all.

It had been eleven days since the Tampa Bay Lightning played a game, but that didn’t stop Nikita Kucherov from picking up right where he left off with an assist, even if his team ended up losing to Pittsburgh.

The Tampa Bay Lightning right winger is having some kind of season. At his current pace, he will ring up the best offensive numbers the NHL has seen in the past 10 years and it won’t even really be close. Evgeni Malkin had 113 points in 2008-09; Kucherov is on pace for 129.

He is the most dangerous weapon in the NHL, but he is also a tenacious student of the game.

“ ‘Kuch’ is one of my favorite guys,” said teammate Steven Stamkos. “People don’t understand how hard he works away from the rink: It’s all hockey. He’ll text me the night before a game, when there’s a game going on, saying ‘Did you see that? Did you this guy’s move, that guy’s goal, how many minutes that guy played tonight?’ He loves hockey so much.”

Amazingly, the most lethal producer in the NHL right now is still making less than $5 million, though that will change when his big-time extension kicks in this summer. Kucherov will then make a much more appropriate $9.5 million per season, but it was the fact he was willing to bet on himself with his earlier bridge contract that got him to this spot. It also really helped out Tampa Bay, as the organization was able to push off the really tough cap decisions until this summer – at which point the Lightning may have their second Stanley Cup in franchise history. If that comes to pass, then there is no such thing as “cap hell” – there is only the warm glow of victory to bask in.

Besides, when you have talents such as Kucherov, Stamkos, Victor Hedman, Andrei Vasilevskiy and Ryan McDonagh all locked into long-term contracts, how bad could things truly ever get? The fact is, Tampa Bay is going to be great for a long time, even if a couple of the names have to change. The Lightning looked like Cup favorites last year, only to fall short to the eventual champs from Washington. Falling short has been a disturbing trend for the Bolts lately, but the team insists there is a different vibe this time and it’s hard to dispute that, based off the way they have dismantled the NHL on a nightly basis. The All-Star break was a good time to assess.

“If we play consistently, the way we played in the first half, we’ll have success,” Kucherov said. “We have to make sure we’re ready for the playoffs and not make the same mistakes we did last year. And stay healthy.”

Funny thing about Kucherov: his linemates tend to have incredible seasons. As a member of ‘The Triplets’ with Ondrej Palat and Tyler Johnson in 2016-17, Kucherov led the team in scoring, filling in for an injured Stamkos. The next year, Kucherov and Stamkos played together on a line and sniper Stamkos became set-up Stamkos, netting a career-high 59 assists with Kucherov on this wing. This year, Brayden Point is playing with ‘Kuch’ and the youngster has already hit the 30-goal mark. His previous NHL-best was 32, last season.

Whether Kucherov is dishing or finishing, he’s getting results and it all goes back to work ethic.

“He’s always in the dressing room stickhandling with a ball, he’s always walking around with his sticks,” Stamkos said. “He loves the game and he wants to be the best. He absolutely hates losing.”

Which makes Tampa Bay a great place for him, since the Lightning don’t lose very often. For this group however, the Cup is the only goal worth chasing at this point and it will be a formidable hill to climb, even with all that assembled talent. But if Kucherov can continue to put up numbers in the playoffs, as he has done in the past, the Bolts will merely be facing speedbumps en route to another parade in sunny Florida.

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