Thursday April 14th, 2016

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Nikita Kucherov scored twice and assisted on Alex Killorn’s game-winner with 11:08 left to play as the Lightning rallied for a 3–2 win over the Red Wings in Game 1 of the teams’ Eastern Conference quarterfinals rematch on Wednesday night (box score | recap | highlights). Three thoughts on the first game of the 2016 playoffs:

Kucherov looks comfortable as offensive centerpiece

NHL
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Who better to take up the offensive mantle of the Lightning’s injured captain and superstar Steven Stamkos than the only player on the team who outscored him this season? With Stamkos out for up to three months after surgery to treat a blood clot in his right arm, it may be up to the 22-year-old Kucherov to key another Tampa Bay run through the Eastern Conference bracket.

After the Lightning spent the opening minutes chasing the game, Kucherov helped level out the ice with a blistering one-timer that beat Red Wings goaltender Jimmy Howard high to open the scoring on just Tampa Bay’s second shot of the game. Tyler Johnson, the Lightning’s leading playoff point-getter a year ago, danced in on a puzzlingly passive Red Wings defense to feed Kucherov for the blast.

The Red Wings scored twice in a span of 116 seconds to grab the lead early in the second period, but Kucherov stuffed home an equalizer at 9:29 of the second after floating in behind a backchecking Darren Helm as Braydon Coburn tossed the puck in front. Kucherov victimized Helm again in the third on the deciding tally, swiping the puck beneath the Detroit red line and feeding Johnson to set up Killorn’s tap-in goal with another spot-on pass.

From a statistical standpoint, the Bolts aren’t in altogether foreign territory: Stamkos didn’t find the back of the net until the ninth game of Tampa Bay’s 2015 playoff run, finishing with just three assists over the course of the team’s seven-game series with the Wings in the first round and opening the door for the Triplets line of Kucherov, Johnson and Ondrej Palat to build their legend. Killorn acquitted himself well in Palat’s place with an assist and the game-winning goal, but Kucherov can’t take a step back in the face of even more defensive attention if the Lightning want to advance.

Drouin plays his way back into Tampa Bay’s good graces

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For as much as hockey fans romanticize the trade deadline, it may be the deal that never came to pass that sparks the Lightning this spring. Jonathan Drouin had the look of an inspired late-season call-up on Wednesday night and played well enough for Tampa Bay to (momentarily) forget about the roller-coaster he and Lightning brass endured this season.

Drouin was sent down to the AHL after requesting a trade early in the season and served a six-week suspension for failing to play in a Syracuse game in mid-January, but the Lightning held onto him and brought him back into the fold after Stamkos was ruled out.

In Game 1, Drouin played on a line with Cedric Paquette and Valteri Filppula, turning in a solid performance that should win him the favor of some hesitant fans in blue and white. After a quiet but steady first period, he showed some of the flash that made him the third pick in the 2013 draft on a few scoring chances as the game wore on, with some productive puckhandling on the power play and a willingness to mix it up in front of the net. The Lightning will certainly take that going forward out of a top prospect many had written off as part of the franchise’s future.

Missed opportunities on special teams

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In a matchup many expected to be light on offensive firepower, the team with the more efficient power play will likely have the inside track on a second-round date with the winner of the Panthers–Islanders series. Neither team’s man-advantage units covered themselves in glory in Game 1, combining to go 0-for-9.

The Red Wings earned the first power play of the game after a tripping penalty on Andrej Sustr, but mere seconds later Niklas Kronwall took a slashing penalty to bring the teams back to even terms. After Detroit went a man down with 10 seconds left to go in the first, a charging call on Lightning veteran Brian Boyle at the buzzer made it 4-on-4 to start the second period. Even when tensions boiled over in front of the Detroit net midway through the second period, each team came away with just three minor penalties.

It didn’t take long to recapture the edge from last year’s tight first-round tilt, but the Red Wings will need a smarter, more opportunistic game if they want to neutralize Tampa Bay’s home-ice advantage and bring a split series back to Detroit. 

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