Kucherov’s return could jolt Lightning-Hurricanes series

Sports

Tampa Bay Lightning right wing Nikita Kucherov (86) celebrates his goal against the Florida Panthers with the bench during the third period in Game 4 of an NHL hockey Stanley Cup first-round playoff series Saturday, May 22, 2021, in Tampa, Fla. (AP Photo/Chris O’Meara)

RALEIGH, N.C. (AP) — The Tampa Bay Lightning have followed a Stanley Cup title run by winning a playoff series while getting one of their top players into the lineup.

It’s just one of the reasons why Rod Brind’Amour knows his Carolina Hurricanes face a major challenge entering the second round, even with home-ice advantage as Central Division champions.

“There’s zero weaknesses,” Brind’Amour said. “You don’t win a Stanley Cup without being the best at everything. And they got it all covered off.”

When the best-of-seven series opens Sunday, both the Hurricanes and the Lightning will be coming off a six-game first-round series. The Lightning beat Florida while weaving star Nikita Kucherov back into the lineup after he had missed the regular season because of hip surgery in late December.

The 27-year-old winger, who started skating in March, was the 2019 season MVP and the 2020 postseason leading scorer in last year’s Cup run. He was sharp right away with three goals and eight assists in the Florida series.

“It took a few games for me to adjust to the speed and physically adjust to the game,” Kucherov said. But after two games I felt normal.”

Kucherov’s presence will offer a major change from the eight regular-season meetings, with Brind’Amour calling Kucherov “probably the freshest guy in the league.”

“It’s one thing one thing to watch it on tape,” captain Steven Stamkos said. “It’s another to go out there and execute to stop it.”

The Hurricanes, too, have their own addition in top-line winger Teuvo Teravainen, who didn’t play in those games while being sidelined for significant time in an injury-hit regular season. The teams split those eight divisional meetings.

“We haven’t seen Teravainen on their team … so you’re getting slightly different looks,” Tampa Bay coach Jon Cooper said.

GOALIE MATCHUP

Tampa Bay’s Andrei Vasilevskiy is coming off his second career playoff shutout and has won eight of his last 11 postseason starts.

Carolina has leaned on rookie Alex Nedeljkovic, who got the start in all six games against Nashville and was sharp – at times, spectacular – during that series.

“He’s got nothing to do with what I do in the middle of a game and vice versa, what I do has no effect on what he should be doing,” Nedeljkovic said of finding motivation based on a goaltender matchup. “At least that’s what you try to tell yourself. … You’ve just got to worry about yourself.”

GOODROW’S RETURN

In addition to Kucherov, the Lightning also got gritty winger Barclay Goodrow back after he missed the first five games of the Florida series because of injury.

“He’s really hard to play against,” Cooper said. “Every team, you can’t have all Ferraris. Sometimes you need a good, old-fashioned four-wheel drive Jeep, and that’s to get you through the mud and that’s what Barclay Goodrow can do for you.”

HURRICANES’ HEALTH

The health of Carolina top defenseman Jaccob Slavin will be worth watching.

Slavin played in Game 1 despite a lower-body injury, then missed the next three games before returning for Games 5 and 6. He assisted on Carolina’s tying goal in the third period and on the overtime winner – very nearly scoring it himself — in Game 6 against the Predators to clinch the series.

Slavin said Thursday he felt good and the decision to miss games and get time to heal was the right one.

Carolina winger Nino Niederreiter left Saturday’s practice early, though Brind’Amour said he didn’t think it is a major concern.

FULLER HOUSE

The Hurricanes’ rowdy home crowd will be even bigger.

The team had announced that the NHL had granted approval for PNC Arena to host an increased capacity. That came after the arena installed a 500-ton chiller to increase air flow while ensuring integrity of the ice despite the rising temperatures outside.

The team said Saturday the capacity will be 16,299 for Games 1 and 2, up from about 12,000 for the Nashville series.

TOPPING THE CHAMPS

This will mark the second time in their three-year playoff run that the Hurricanes have played the reigning Stanley Cup champion. The Hurricanes won the other, beating Washington in Game 7 of a 2019 first-round series on Brock McGinn’s double-overtime winner.

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AP Sports Writer Fred Goodall in Tampa, Florida, and AP Hockey Writer Stephen Whyno in Washington contributed to this report.

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Follow Aaron Beard on Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/aaronbeardap

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More AP NHL: https://apnews.com/hub/NHL and https://twitter.com/AP_Sports

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