In the Tampa Bay Lightning’s 4-3 overtime win over the Ottawa Senators Tuesday night, Nikita Kucherov did not play most of the third period. He hurt his foot blocking a shot against the Washington Capitals on Saturday, but that had nothing to do with it.
Instead, head coach Jon Cooper decided Kucherov needed to pay for a costly mistake late in the second. The reigning Hart Trophy-winner tried to stickhandle around the Senators defense, but was stripped of the puck and Senators forward Anthony Duclair scored a game-tying goal on a breakaway. The turnover was bad, but Kucherov also made a lackluster effort backchecking and might have caught Duclair had he made more of an effort.
Cooper and Kucherov did not really address the matter post-game. Kucherov declined to comment and Cooper said, “We did what was best for us to win tonight.” However, Cooper’s message was clear and although they lost 4-3 in overtime the next game, Kucherov and the Lightning responded with intensity.
The Team Game
Kucherov is a spectacular player with amazing skills. He’s even better at setting up his teammates, but there are times when he gets caught trying to do too much; that’s true of many Lightning players, especially when the results aren’t there. That’s what happened Tuesday night that consequently got him benched.
Cooper’s message was that it’s not an individual sport. As good as one player can be — as good as Kucherov is — the best teams play as a complete unit. His turnover showed a reliance on personal skills rather than trusting his teammates. Benching Kucherov did exactly what it was designed to do.
In their game Thursday against the Dallas Stars, the Lightning — including Kucherov — came out with crisp passes, were hard on the puck and played smart defensively. The Lightning outshot the Stars 48-20 and were 2-for-3 on the power play,. Unfortunately, they were the victims of poor goaltending from Andrei Vasilevskiy.
Pushing the Button
Speaking to reporters about Kucherov’s turnover, Cooper said, “It could have been anybody. As a group, we put ourselves in a position that we wanted to win this game, and this is what we were going with tonight.” Kucherov had scored earlier in the game, but sometimes players need a reminder that the game is bigger than one goal.
As Joe Smith of The Athletic reported, Cooper has said that part of his job is to “find what buttons to push” and that some players “need a kick in the rear,” (from ‘What the benching of Nikita Kucherov means for the Hart Trophy winner and Lightning’ — The Athletic, 12/17/19). Very few coaches are lucky enough to have the “Bench the league MVP” button, but Cooper didn’t hesitate to push it.
Pushing that button had a domino effect. The Lightning controlled nearly the entire game against the Stars in terms of shot pressure, and Kucherov was a threat all night. Now, Cooper needs to figure out if he can do the same with his goaltenders.
Kucherov has always let his actions speak louder than his words, and he did that Thursday night against the Stars, with four shots in almost 21 minutes of ice time. He also added a beautiful assist on the Lightning’s second goal of the game.
No one was looking for a five-goal game from Kucherov on Thursday, but a consistent effort from start to finish and to be the play-maker he has shown to be in the past. When the game against the Stars when to overtime, Kucherov was on the ice to start the period. Although the Lightning dropped the game in overtime, Kucherov was one of the best players on the ice and responded as expected after being benched.