TAMPA, Fla. -- Only three players in NHL history have scored 30-plus points in consecutive postseasons: Wayne Gretzky, Mario Lemieux and now Nikita Kucherov.
The Tampa Bay Lightning star continued his spectacular postseason, recording two goals and an assist in a 5-1 win over the Montreal Canadiens in Game 1 of the Stanley Cup Final on Monday night. All of Kucherov's points came in the third period, breaking the game open for Tampa Bay.
"That's one of the best players in the world," said Lightning captain Steven Stamkos, who was set up by Kucherov on the power play for Tampa Bay's final goal. "He's playing like a beast right now. He's so, so good."
All concerns about Kucherov's health seemed to fade away Monday. The winger exited after just one shift in Game 6 of the semifinal series against the Islanders on Wednesday, and coach Jon Cooper had said it was "dicey" if Kucherov would play in Game 7 of the conference finals series.
But Kucherov downplayed the injury -- and even refused to acknowledge he was hurt at all. "There was no injury," Kucherov said last week. "I don't know what you're talking about."
Kucherov played in Game 7 against the Islanders and seemed just fine against the Canadiens, as the Lightning are now three wins away from repeating as Stanley Cup champions.
"Guys are battling through injuries; it's kind of an inspiration to others, and so it's uplifting, watching what guys fight through, especially at this time of year," Cooper said. "And [Kucherov is] doing that and clearly he was rewarded for it tonight and in how he played and some of the results. It's Finals time, and everybody's playing banged up and fortunately for this group, why we probably had some success because everybody's fighting through it."
Kucherov again downplayed things Monday. His first goal, which gave the Lightning a 3-1 lead two minutes into the third period, was fluky, but came after he said he followed the coaches' game plan, and just threw a puck on net.
"Not much I had to do there, just try to throw it at the net and see what happens there and fortunately a lucky bounce for us," Kucherov said.
The 2019 league MVP even tried to deflect credit, saying he thought the goal should be credited to teammate Ondrej Palat.
"I thought it was Pally's goal and I hope that he scores that goal," Kucherov said.
Playing on home ice, the Lightning got to control last change -- and especially feasted off matchups in which Kucherov's line faced Montreal youngsters Nick Suzuki and Cole Caufield. The line of Caufield, Suzuki and Tyler Toffoli was a combined minus-9 in the game.
"We have full confidence in our young players up front. We wouldn't be at this point of the playoffs if we didn't have full confidence in them and what they can do in our own end," Canadiens defenseman Ben Chiarot said. "Of course there's matchups that we'd like to get, but that's not a luxury that you have when you're on the road."
Kucherov reached 30 points in only 19 playoff games; the only player to reach that mark faster over the past 25 years was Pittsburgh Penguins center Evgeni Malkin in 2009. Kucherov is also running away with the playoff scoring race; the next closest player is teammate Brayden Point, who has 23 points. It has been all the more impressive since Kucherov spent the entire regular season sidelined as he rehabbed from Dec. 29 hip surgery.
"It was tough mentally not being able to play, but that's all in the past," Kucherov said Monday. "I'm just really enjoying the moment and happy to be with the boys and just excited to play in the Final."
Kucherov's season on the bench was met with some controversy around the league. The cap-stressed Lightning got some relief with Kucherov (and his $9.5 million cap hit) remaining on long-term injury reserve throughout the season, as general manager Julien BriseBois didn't need to shed any contracts to stay cap compliant. The salary cap becomes moot in the playoffs, and Kucherov made his return in Game 1 of the first-round series against the Florida Panthers. After the Lightning eliminated the Carolina Hurricanes in the second round, Canes defenseman Dougie Hamilton lamented: "We lost to a team that's $18 million over the cap."
NHL commissioner Gary Bettman and deputy commissioner Bill Daly were asked about the situation in their annual pre-Stanley Cup Final news conference Monday.
"Nothing inappropriate was done here," Daly said. "At the end of the day, all of the managers know what the rules are. The facts seem to align with the situation that allowed Tampa to bring back a significant player in the playoffs. I'm not apologizing for what has been a sound system and what has been a sound system from the start."
Bettman noted the salary cap provisions had been in place since 2005.
"This is not new news for anyone," he said. "Circumstances were what they were, and we were satisfied that there was nothing untoward going on."
Daly said in the future the NHL would be open to changing the rules, but it would have to be collectively bargained with the players' association.