Nikita Kucherov joins 100-assists club in Lightning's regular-season finale

Eduardo A. Encina, Tampa Bay Times on

Published in Hockey

TAMPA — Nikita Kucherov isn’t much for the spectacle, and he goes out of his way to shun the spotlight.

But the Lightning right wing couldn’t avoid it on Wednesday night in the regular-season finale, when he capped the best single-season performance in team history by joining one of the most elite clubs in hockey.

Whether Kucherov wins his second scoring title remains to be seen. And whether he emerges from a tight Hart Trophy race with the league’s MVP award will have to wait. But Kucherov gave everyone at Amalie Arena reason to celebrate when he became the fifth player in NHL history to record a 100-assist season in the second period of the Lightning’s 6-4 victory over the Maple Leafs.

The outcome of Wednesday’s game didn’t mean much, but two of the league’s top players were chasing history. Not only did Kucherov enter the night one assist shy of 100, but Toronto’s Auston Matthews also was one goal from becoming the first American-born player to score 70, a feat that hadn’t been accomplished in 21 years. He did not end up scoring for the Leafs.

It was clear players on both teams were trying to set up their teammates for history, and Kucherov set up his share of scoring chances throughout the first half of the night, including a Steven Stamkos one-timer attempt that pinged off the crossbar in the second period.

Kucherov, who has long been the catalyst of the Lightning’s top power-play unit, didn’t get an assist on either of the team’s first two man-advantage opportunities.


But on the third Lightning power play, Kucherov faked a one-timer shot from the right circle, drawing Toronto defenseman Simon Benoit to him, and tapped a pass into the slot where Brayden Point was open for a snap shot that beat Leafs goaltender Martin Jones to give the Lightning a 4-1 lead with 2:55 left in the second period.

Kucherov quickly disappeared into a celebration circle. Nick Paul, who scored the Lightning’s first goal of the night, retrieved the puck from the back of the net, and Kucherov allowed a rare smile when he received hugs from his teammates as he made his way back to the Lightning bench to chants of “M-V-P” from the Amalie Arena crowd.

Lightning coach Jon Cooper watched the congratulations from his spot behind the Lightning bench, then leaned over and gave his own praise. Kucherov eventually made his way to the end of the Lightning bench, where Point was sitting, and embraced his longtime linemate.

Kucherov joins an exclusive 100-assist club that consists only of Wayne Gretzky (11 times), Mario Lemieux (once), Bobby Orr (once) and Connor McDavid (once). McDavid reached 100 assists on Monday; before then, no player had reached the 100-assist mark since Gretzky in 1990-91.

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