Beware, Lightning: Canadiens have success locking up top forwards

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TAMPA — Nikita Kucherov surprised everyone, including his coach, by playing in the Lightning’s Game 7 against the Islanders on Friday night.

“It was dicey,” coach Jon Cooper said after a 1-0 win that sent the Lightning to their second straight Stanley Cup final.

The star right wing clearly was ailing from the cross-check he took early in Game 6 that kept him out for the rest of the game, but his return to the lineup boosted his teammates, who had largely assumed they would have to win a do-or-die game without their best player.

“I thought that was a big push for our (locker) room because I’m not so sure the players thought he was going to end up playing,” Cooper said.

Said Kucherov: “There was no question if I’m going to play or not. I felt good. It’s a Game 7. You’ve got to sacrifice yourself and play in those moments.”

Kucherov has two days to rest before Game 1 of the Stanley Cup final, when he will face a tough challenge against a Canadiens team that unexpectedly made it this far in part by shutting down opponents’ top scoring forwards.

Vegas right wing Mark Stone, the Golden Knights’ leading scorer in the regular season, had eight points in the first 13 games of the playoffs but did not record a point in a six-game league semifinal series loss to Montreal. Left wing Max Pacioretty, the Golden Knights’ second-best scorer, had one goal in the series.

Two of Winnipeg’s top three scorers in the regular season — Kyle Connor and Nikolaj Ehlers — were held to one goal combined against Montreal in a four-game second-round loss. (The other, Mark Scheifele, didn’t score in Game 1, then didn’t play after that while serving a suspension for an illegal hit). And Montreal held Toronto’s scoring duo of Auston Matthews and Mitch Marner to one goal between them in the first round.

Kucherov leads the league with 27 postseason points (five goals), but the Lightning have a deeper lineup of scorers than most. The playoffs’ top five scorers are from Tampa Bay: Kucherov, Brayden Point (league-high 14 goals, 20 points), Steven Stamkos (17 points), Alex Killorn (17 points) and Victor Hedman (16 points).

The Islanders cooled off the Lightning power play in the semifinals. Tampa Bay scored at a 27.8-percent clip after a 41.7-percent success rate in the first two series.

The Canadiens have quietly been one of the league’s best teams in 5-on-5 play over the past two regular seasons. This year they ranked fourth in the league in scoring chances created and second in scoring change differential in 5-on-5 play. The Lightning ranked eighth and 10th in those categories.

That strength for the Canadiens has come to the forefront in the postseason, and in the final, they like their chances if they can keep it a 5-on-5 game.

“You’ve got to stay out of the penalty box,” Canadiens forward Corey Perry. “Everybody knows what (the Lightning) power play’s like and how they can move the puck and the different options they have, so that’s one way of limiting their chances.”

Game 7 against the Islanders was a good example of how the Lightning can win without the power play. They didn’t have one in the game and scored the game’s only goal while shorthanded, relying on hard-nosed defense to preserve the lead in a game that had just one penalty called.

But when the Lightning have lost in the postseason, it has been because of 5-on-5 play. In their six losses, the Lightning have been outscored 18-6 when playing 5-on-5. They held a 5-4 advantage on special teams in losses.

Before their 8-0 Game 5 romp over the Islanders, Tampa Bay’s second line of Killorn, Anthony Cirelli and Stamkos did not have a point on 5-on-5 in the series. As a whole, the Lightning’s defensemen haven’t been as active 5-on-5 throughout the postseason. And one reason the Lightning struggled to score early against the Islanders was because of their 5-on-5 play.

In Game 7 against the Islanders, the Lightning’s top forward line had the worst expected goal percentage, a statistic that looks at how much a group creates high-quality scoring chances compared with how many it allows, among Tampa Bay’s four lines. That could be attributed to Kucherov being limited.

Still, while this might look like a David versus Goliath matchup on paper, the Canadiens have proven they’re a dangerous team.

“It’s going to be a tough series, obviously,” Kucherov said. “They are a hell of a team. They made it to the final for a reason, and we respect them. But at the same time, you know we want to worry about ourselves and play the right way for 60 minutes and see what happens.”

Contact Eduardo A. Encina at eencina@tampabay.com. Follow @EddieintheYard.

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