DETROIT—Nikita Kucherov had synthetic ice laid down in his two-car garage to help him perfect the wicked shot and release that allows him to be one of the NHL’s most dangerous offensive threats.
The garage is his laboratory where the Tampa Bay Lightning star works for hours to refine technique, improve accuracy and experiment with ingenious ways to humble goaltenders. Twenty minutes per session. At least twice per day in the summer. But it’s not as if Kucherov has created a new shooting method. His formula for success is far from a secret.
“He works at his game,” Lightning coach Jon Cooper said. “Time and effort. He didn’t show up to Tampa in September. He showed up in July and he was on the ice four or five times a week just working on his game. We are reaping the benefits of that.”
Nathan Walker, Australia’s first NHL player, getting his break in Washington
Erik Karlsson to make his season debut for Senators Tuesday after foot surgery
Golden Knights play it right in shattered Vegas: Cox
The Lightning’s 5-1 start is rooted in several factors, including GM Steve Yzerman’s off-season moves and Steven Stamkos’ good health, but Kucherov’s latest scoring binge is chief among them.
The Russian winger has scored in each of his team’s first six games, joining Mario Lemieux, Yzerman and Keith Tkachuk as the only NHL players to do that over the past 30 years.
“He’s a special player with a special shot,” Stamkos said.
Kucherov’s shot release seems is the merger of perfect hand-eye coordination, balance and technique. The movement of his stick seems effortless and yet the puck explodes off his blade.
“It’s like a sling shot,” said Stamkos, who knows plenty about shooting a puck.
Kucherov scored twice Monday in Tampa Bay’s 3-2 win against Detroit, giving him seven goals in six games. All of his goals are like works of art.
“(Look) at the different ways he’s scoring goals,” Stamkos said. “He’s got two beautiful backhanders, a couple of great wristers. He’s constantly working on his game.”
Stamkos compares Kucherov to former Lightning player Martin St. Louis in the way they worked at their craft. St. Louis averaged 32 goals per season for the Lightning from 2002-11.
“With the work ethic they both had — before practice, after practice — we shouldn’t be surprised by their success,” Stamkos said.
Kucherov’s elusiveness is the underappreciated aspect of his scoring touch. He creates shooting lanes with a carefully-considered plan of attack.
“You don’t want to be predictable,” Kucherov said. “Always try to make defenceman (wonder) what I am going to do next. Make them confused. Use their mistakes.”
This season is a continuation of Kucherov’s brilliance last season when he dominated in the second half in an unsuccessful effort to carry the Lightning into the playoffs. Cooper upped his playing time then, and now Kucherov is playing more than 20 minutes per game.
At 24, he’s just arriving in his prime years and we haven’t seen his best yet. He was one of three players who scored 40 or more last season.
“He scored 30, then he gets 40 and he’s not sitting around (saying) ‘I got 40.’ He says ‘I want to get 50.’ You like the hunger of that. But that doesn’t come easy.”
Cooper says the reason Kucherov gets 20-plus minutes is that he accepts his responsibility away from the puck. “He works at his 200-foot game,” Cooper said. “What why you can put him on the ice when you are trying to protect a lead.”
If Kucherov can score tonight at New Jersey, he can be the first NHLer to score in seven consecutive games to start a season since Keith Tkachuk did it in 2008-09. Lemieux also scored in seven consecutive games in 1992-93
Stamkos said Kucherov’s release ranks in the top three to five in the game today.
“And when you have confidence, it’s probably the best,” Stamkos said. “When you are on a streak like (Kucherov’s), you feel like you can’t miss. You feel like the puck is glued to your stick. You feel like anything you shoot goes in.”