Kucherov returns for Lightning in playoffs feeling better than before

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Nikita Kucherov said he recognizes it might take him time to get up to speed making his season debut for the Tampa Bay Lightning in the Stanley Cup First Round.

“I have to adjust real quick and try to slow down the game as much as I can, use my skill and my head to think the game and make the plays,” the forward said. “I’ll adjust to the speed as the series goes on. Hopefully it’s not going to take long.”

Kucherov, who had hip surgery before the season, is expected to play when the Lightning visit the Florida Panthers in Game 1 on Sunday (7:30 p.m. ET; NBCSN, SN, TVAS, BSFL, BSSUN).

It will be his first game since Sept. 28, 2020, when the Lightning won the Stanley Cup in a 2-0 victory against the Dallas Stars in Game 6 of the Stanley Cup Final. He led the NHL with 34 points (seven goals, 27 assists) in the 2020 Stanley Cup Playoffs.

Kucherov missed the entire regular season recovering from hip surgery he had on Dec. 29. He has been practicing with the Lightning for two weeks.

“The big thing for me is to not sit here and say Kucherov is coming back, all problems are solved,” Lightning coach Jon Cooper said. “That would be the absolute wrong way to look at it. I don’t think anybody should be looking at it that way. He’s an exceptional player in this league. He can make things happen and so yes you put him in some of these skilled situations he looks great because he does it better than most anybody in the world. But we have to also be careful in the fact that I don’t think he’s played a game in [almost] eight months and there’s something to be said for that. 

“The body is rested, but he’s still coming off an injury that we weren’t sure we were going to get him back in the first round. He’s got to get his timing and there’s going to be parts of the game that probably frustrate him because he knows in his head he can make a play but because you haven’t played he’s got to catch up to the game.”

Kucherov said the hip injury occurred after he pulled his groin in Game 1 against the Columbus Blue Jackets in the Eastern Conference First Round last season. 

“I think that caused the hip problem too,” he said. “From that game I kind of played through it.”

He said he has no lingering effects following the surgery.

“I feel really good,” Kucherov said. “Nothing is bothering me. I feel strong and I think it’s better than before.”

Lightning forward Yanni Gourde said Kucherov’s skill has been noticeable in practice.

“He makes plays on the power play that no one else really sees and it’s so hard to play against that when I go on the PK,” Gourde said. “He’s so deceptive and it’s so hard to read. He’s making those plays, making the right reads, the right plays. It’s fun to watch and it’s fun to have him back on the ice with us.”

Kucherov said watching the Lightning’s games from the press box this season was tough on him. The Lightning (36-17-3) were third in the Discover Central Division, four points behind the second-place Panthers and five behind the first-place Carolina Hurricanes.

“At the same time, I understand what I’ve been through and the purpose of me staying out, not playing to properly heal and feel better for the future,” Kucherov said. “I looked at the game from different angles and perspectives and picked up a few things here and there that I think I have added to my game. Hopefully I can use in the game what I saw.”

Tampa Bay is also expected to have forward Steven Stamkos in the lineup for Game 1. Stamkos missed the last 16 games of the season with a lower-body injury.

“We haven’t had our full team,” Lightning defenseman Ryan McDonagh said. “Now we’ve got a chance to obviously be as close as we can to full health. We want to be the best and continue to be the best.”

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