TAMPA — The Islanders might be taking on a shorthanded Lightning team without its NHL-leading point producer in Game 7 of the Stanley Cup semfiinals Friday night.
Nikita Kucherov took one shift and headed to the locker room during the Islanders’ 3-2 overtime win in Game 6 on Wednesday night at Nassau Coliseum. Tampa Bay’s top-line winger was cross-checked in the back by Islanders defenseman Scott Mayfield early in the first period. Mayfield got away with what should’ve been a penalty and eventually scored the game-tying goal in the third period.
Tampa Bay head coach Jon Cooper said he didn’t have an update on Kucherov on Thursday, but also would not entertain the idea of playing without him in Game 7.
“It is early to talk about that,” Cooper said. “But if [Kucherov could not play], we would have to count on the player that came into the lineup. You move on. And if you are fortunate enough to win the game, it makes one hell of a story.”
The Lightning, however, did take exception to Mayfield’s cross-check. Cooper pointed out how close the officials were to the cross-check, yet still did not call a penalty on Mayfield. Kucherov continued his shift after the cross-check and attempted to check Mathew Barzal, but then came up awkwardly and immediately left the ice.
“The play on [Kucherov], the referee doesn’t see it. Probably a guy looking for a cheap shot there,” Lightning captain Steven Stamkos said Wednesday night. “I think [the officials] said they didn’t think it was malicious. They don’t have a chance to look at it on replay like we do.”
Kucherov missed the entire regular season after he had hip surgery in December, but it was always clear the Lightning were aiming for him to return to the lineup come the playoffs. In 17 playoff games, Kucherov leads the NHL with 27 points, including 17 power-play points.
Since salary cap regulations don’t apply in the postseason, the Lightning have gotten away with dressing a lineup that is nearly $8 million over the cap with the late addition of Kucherov.
“A lot of stuff runs through [Kucherov] and he’s good with deception,” Islanders head coach Barry Trotz said Thursday before he and his team traveled to Tampa. “I think any time you take one guy off a power play it changes the dynamic.”
Kucherov is one of the strongest weapons on Tampa Bay’s first power-play unit, with his sharp shot and knack for creating space for his teammates. The Lightning went 0-for-2 on the power play without Kucherov on Wednesday, which was crucial in helping the Islanders secure the series-tying win.
“We played 56 games without [Kucherov],” Cooper said. “Usually, we have 12 forwards when we play without him, so that probably made it tougher on us when we had 11. But we’ve gone down this path for four months. It’s nothing new for us.”
The Islanders, in Game 6, overcame a multi-goal deficit to win an elimination game for just the second time in franchise history. The other time it happened was April 13, 1982, in Game 5 of the Patrick Division semifinals against the Penguins. The Islanders advanced to the division final against the Rangers behind two third-period goals and John Tonelli’s overtime winner.
That Islanders team went on to win the third of four consecutive Stanley Cups.