BRANDON — Whether it’s a slight nod, a quick glance to make eye contact or some sort of magic mind meld Nikita Kucherov has with teammates, the 20-year-old rookie has a knack for finding an open seam up the ice to create a breakaway.
Seemingly once per game, the crafty Kucherov takes a pass up the middle for a one-on-one chance against the goaltender, and he’s become the Wizard of Breakaway Lane.
“We kind of joke around, because it’s almost like it’s a skill for him to be able to find himself to get open and have that many breakaways,” linemate Nate Thompson said. “We joke around that he’s hiding in the visiting bench or coming out of the penalty box or wherever he’s coming from, but he finds his way.”
Since scoring his first career goal on his first shot in his first NHL shift against the New York Rangers on Nov. 25, Kucherov’s confidence has steadily risen. The 2011 second-round pick looks more comfortable on the ice, is more familiar with his surroundings and looks more and more like he’s in the NHL to stay.
Kucherov enters today’s game against San Jose with seven goals and 10 points in 25 games.
His three game-winning goals are tied for third among rookies, with his most recent winner coming on a breakaway attempt Tuesday against the Rangers just nine seconds after a Victor Hedman goal.
Off the faceoff, Kucherov was supposed to head for the side boards to help chip the puck deep into the offensive zone. Instead, Kucherov made a read, rolled away from the defense and split the seam down the middle to take a pass from Radko Gudas.
Kucherov beat goaltender Henrik Lundqvist between the legs.
“He’s usually good for one or two of those a game, so you have to know when he’s on the ice, because something like that might happen,” Gudas said. “Sometimes it’s like, ‘Oh, OK, him again.’ So, that’s how it’s going to be. He’s very good at that.”
The goal Tuesday proved pivotal for Tampa Bay, and might be the pinhole that will burst open the dam that has prevented Kucherov from having more than seven goals. Though he’s had a multitude of breakaway chances, converting them has been a learning experience.
“I’ve tried to do everything in breakaways, and nothing has worked,” Kucherov said. “I’m glad I did something to score a goal. ... I’ve had so many breakaways, it was like, ‘Whew.’ ”
His penchant for creating those opportunities has caught the attention of his teammates.
“He’s so fast and so sneaky that you have to be aware when he is on the ice,” Hedman said. “He’s extraordinary, how he can find those open seams.”
While those offensive plays stand out, his play defensively has made him a fixture in the lineup. Before being called up, Kucherov had 24 points in 17 games for AHL Syracuse, which still ranks second on the Crunch. So, when he first arrived in Tampa, head coach Jon Cooper told Kucherov if he wanted to stay in the NHL it would be from playing defense.
Through 25 games, Kucherov is plus-8, tied for 11th among rookies, and has been an even- or plus-player in 22 of his 25 games.
During Thursday’s shootout loss to the New York Islanders, a back-checking Kucherov broke up a scoring chance by lifting the stick of a New York player to prevent a would-be goal on the open side of the net.
“He’s a special talent, and that’s why you can use words like innate or ‘it’ factor or all those adjectives, that’s what separates those guys,” Cooper said.
“But that’s just one facet of his game, and he can’t rely on that. It’s great to have, because it separates you from other players, but you still have to back-check hard, play (defense) and have awareness away from the puck. That’s what he is learning right now, and that’s the stuff that will keep him in the league, not the ‘innate’ ability to get a breakaway. ... But it is nice to have a guy on your team that can do that.”