Playoff Kuch equals Klutch for Lightning, Kucherov’s brilliance sets up Colton winner to stun Panthers in Game Two

With the Rangers busier this postseason, I haven’t had as much time to devote to other series. Even though I’ve caught most games, it isn’t easy to write about them when I’m preoccupied with the Blueshirts.

Tonight provided a moment of these Stanley Cup Playoffs that could prove large. It was Game Two of the Atlantic Division Final between the Lightning and Panthers. It didn’t disappoint.

Coming off a 4-1 home defeat to the Bolts in Game One, the Panthers needed a better effort to tie the best-of-seven second round series. They definitely brought a lot more to the table.

Even without Mr. Overtime, Brayden Point, the Lightning are proving to be a difficult roadblock for the Panthers. They held the edge in play, but were only able to score once on Andrei Vasilevskiy.

The best goalie of this era turned in another stellar showing by making 35 saves on 36 shots. He backstopped the Bolts to a stunning 2-1 victory in Game Two. Over the last three games dating back to the Game Seven elimination of the Maple Leafs, Vasilevskiy has allowed only three goals on the last 101 shots.

Even a lethal offense such as the Cats are being clawed by the 27-year old ace netminder. However, he’s had help from teammates. They went above and beyond by sacrificing their bodies to block 24 shots to keep the Panthers’ offense at bay.

A Corey Perry power play goal on a great deflection of a Steven Stamkos shot had held up for the game’s first 38 minutes as the only goal. But Eetu Luostarinen’s long wrist shot surprised Vasilevskiy to trickle past him with 1:53 left to tie the game.

The tying goal was made possible by Florida defenseman Gustav Forsling, who after setting up the Luostarinen shot, drove the net to distract Vasilevskiy just enough to give the Panthers momentum. Buoyed by the crowd coming to life, they drew a tripping minor on Nikita Kucherov with 47 seconds to go in the period.

There were two key saves made by each goalie before the conclusion of the second. First, Sergei Bobrovsky denied Nick Paul’s shorthanded bid. Then Vasilevskiy got across to rob Anthony Duclair on a one-timer with nine seconds left. He also made a tricky stop on a Sam Reinhart deflection before time expired.

Throughout the intensely fought second game, there was plenty of physicality dished out from both interstate Florida rivals. The hitting included Erik Cernak taking a very tough check from Radko Gudas into the Tampa bench. He’d stay in the game.

The Panthers out-hit the Lightning 52-35. Gudas paced them with seven while Ben Chiarot had six. Only two skaters didn’t register a hit. The hard-nosed Cernak paced the Lightning with five hits. Three other players had four including the gritty Anthony Cirelli.

That’s the kind of game it was. It had that classic in your face playoff hockey we’ve grown accustomed to. A lot of hard fought battles which typified last year’s Battle Of Florida. A first round series won by the Lightning, who went on to repeat.

While the Panthers peppered Vasilevskiy with shots, they also had many that never reached him. In a determined defensive performance, the championship caliber Bolts blocked 24 shots. Fourteen of eighteen skaters hit the score sheet led by Cernak’s four blocks.

At one point, Stamkos went to the locker room twice for repairs due to leading by example. After a diving block, Brandon Hagel limped off. But of course he would return. Hockey player. What Cernak, Stamkos and Hagel showed is why the Lightning lead the series two games to none.

While both Vasilevskiy and Russian counterpart Bobrovsky made big saves at each end during a hard fought third period that saw the Panthers hold a 10-8 edge in shots, it was a stunning play by Kucherov that left the building in a state of shock.

With the game still tied and looking destined for overtime, Ondrej Palat made a hustle play to keep the puck in at the Panthers’ blue line. He was able to get it deep for Kucherov, who was parked behind the Florida net. Ever a dangerous player, he made an unbelievable play to break Panther hearts.

With Forsling behind the net committed to occupying Kucherov, partner Mackenzie Weegar made a cardinal mistake. Instead of staying home in front of the net, he chased Kucherov. That allowed the clutch Kucherov to make an astonishing backhand centering feed for a Ross Colton finish with 3.8 seconds left in regulation.

It was insane. That quickly, a great game between two bitter rivals that looked ready to go to overtime, was over. Oh. They put time back on after the scoreboard read 0.9 seconds when Colton celebrated his team-leading fifth of the postseason. But for all intents and purposes. Game. Set. Match.

Checkmate. Lightning. Or rather Kucherov. One of the game’s biggest stars, the electrifying 28-year old former Hart and Art Ross winner is as clutch a player as there is. A look at his career highlights why the second round gem stolen at number 58 in the 2011 NHL Draft, proves why he must be paid close attention to.

For his eight-year career, Kucherov is averaging over a point-per-game with 616 points (246-370-616) in 562 games. A dominant five-on-five player who’s also lethal on the power play, he’s a plus-129.

Even better, Kucherov produces when it matters most. Nicknamed Kuch by coach Jon Cooper and teammates, he steps it up in the postseason.

As evidenced by the brilliant pass for the Colton game-winner last night to put the Panthers in an 0-2 hole with the next two games at Tampa Bay this weekend, just call him Playoff Kuch. The primary helper padded his career playoff point total to 138 (47-91-138) over 122 games.

Playoff Kuch equals Klutch. He can elevate his game to another level when the stakes are raised. Kucherov led all scorers the last two postseasons. Both resulted in Stanley Cups for the Lightning.

After putting up 34 points (7-27-34) in the playoff bubble to help the Lightning win their second Cup, Kucherov was a beast in the repeat with 32 points (8-24-32) last year. He paced everyone in assists and points for a second consecutive postseason.

What’s Playoff Kuch doing this Spring? So far, he has three goals with eight assists for 11 points. That leads the Lightning in scoring. That’s after going 25-44-69 in only 47 contests over an injury riddled ’21-22.

Insane production for a remarkable player. The thing about Kucherov is he prefers to set up shop in the right circle and find open teammates for goals. Rather than shoot when he possesses a howitzer (beat Bobrovsky in Game One), he’s an unselfish player by nature.

The Lightning have burned the Panthers for four power play goals in the first two games. Kucherov has two power play points. In the seven-game first round win over the Leafs, he had five power play points. None bigger than his five-on-three goal that forced overtime in Game Six.

That was the same elimination game where Toronto controlled most of the play in sudden death. But Point won it on a rebound to force Game Seven which Tampa took 2-1 on Nick Paul’s pair to again oust the Leafs in the first round.

If there’s been a noticeable difference so far, it’s the special teams. While the Lightning have struck for four power play goals (4-for-9), the Panthers are 0-for-7. They have yet to score a power play goal in these playoffs. A shocking change from the regular season when they tied for fifth at 24.4 percent.

The question for the Panthers is can they win Game Three on the road to get back in the series. Don’t forget last year’s series saw the road team take the first three games before the Lightning won Game Four and Six to close it out.

They can’t come back unless Aleksander Barkov wakes up. He’s without a point over the first two games. The fact that the Panthers only have scored twice is remarkable.

It’s a credit to how the Lightning are playing. They’re keeping the explosive Cats from opening it up. The defense from stalwarts Victor Hedman and Ryan McDonagh are huge keys.

It’s a team effort with Cernak and Mikhail Sergachev continuing to do the heavy lifting with Cooper opting to play seven D including Zach Bogosian, Cal Foote and Jan Ruuta without Point.

When you have the game’s best goalie getting hot at the right time, it makes it even harder on opponents. All the pressure is on the Panthers after winning the President’s Trophy. They finally won their first playoff series since ’96.

It’s not over yet. The experienced Lightning know that. It’ll be interesting to see what happens when the series shifts to Amalie Arena on Saturday.

One thing is certain. Playoff Kuch has been activated.

About Derek Felix

Derek Felix is sports blogger whose previous experience included separate stints at ESPN as a stat researcher for NHL and WNBA telecasts. The Staten Island native also interned for or hockey historian Stan Fischler and worked behind the scenes for MSG as a production assistant on New Jersey Devil telecasts. An avid New York sports fan who enjoys covering events, writing, concerts, movies and the outdoors, Derek has covered consecutive Staten Island Yankees NY Penn League championships in '05 and '06. He also scored Berkeley Carroll high school basketball games from '06-14 and provided an outlet for the Park Slope school's student athletes. Hitting Back gives them the publicity they deserve. In his free time, he also attends Ranger games and is a loyal St. John's alum with a sports management degree. The Battle Of Hudson administrator and chief editor can be followed below on Twitter and Facebook.
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