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Nikita Kucherov searching for answers in quest for goals

By Roger Mooney
Published: February 7, 2018 Updated: February 7, 2018 at 03:53 PM
The Winnipeg Jets' Dustin Byfuglien (33) stops a shot attempt by the Lightning's Nikita Kucherov (86) during the Lightning's recent road trip. [Trevor Hagan | The Canadian Press]

TAMPA – Nikita Kucherov said he might start shooting from the red line. Or, he might take possession of the puck in the defensive zone and fire it the length of the ice.

He is kidding, of course.

But when you are mired in an 11-game goalless drought and you watch other players score from impossible angles, well, why not, right?

"You think, 'I just had a Grade A chance and I couldn't bury it, and this guy scores from behind (the net),'  Kucherov said after Wednesday's practice at Amalie Arena. "I just might as well shoot it from my goal and it might go in."

Kucherov, who remarkably still leads the NHL with 66 points, is frustrated.

The Lightning's top goal scorer, who is tied for fourth in the league with 27, has not scored since Jan. 7 at Detroit. He does have seven assists in the past 11 games — three coming in one night at Philadelphia. And he did have that hat trick during the first game of the 3-on-3 All-Star Game tournament.

That served as a tease. The scoring touch he hoped returned that wild afternoon has not.

"This is not fun, definitely," he said. "I wish I would score. I think I'm in that kind of period where whatever I do doesn't work."

Alex Killorn's three goals in the past three games matched his total from his previous 22. #TBLightning @Akillorn19 @TB_Times @TBTimes_JSmith https://t.co/mh36rLOF01

— TampaBayTimesSports (@TBTimes_Sports) February 6, 2018

Seated to Kucherov's left along the back wall of the Lightning's dressing room is forward Tyler Johnson, who lived through a 15-game goalless drought earlier this season.

"Goal scoring is one of those things where there are a lot of things you can't control," Johnson said.

And it is one of those things that every player must endure, though not all last as long as the one Kucherov is currently battling.

Alex Ovechkin of the Capitals, who leads the NHL with 32 goals, has had a pair of five-game goalless streaks this season. Evgeni Malkin of the Penguins, second with 30 goals, went six games without a goal. So did William Karlsson of the Golden Knights, who is third in goals with 28.

John Tavares of the Islanders, whose 27 are tied with Kucherov, has had a trio of five-game goalless streaks.

"You can be doing everything you want to do, but it just doesn't go your way," Johnson said. "Yeah, it gets frustrating and you try to maybe hold your stick a little tighter, try to force things a little too much. I think we've all played hockey long enough to realize goal scoring, there's ups and downs to it. Sometimes it goes in. Sometimes it doesn't."

Lightning coach Jon Cooper said he wants Kucherov to shoot more, that the percentages will eventually favor someone with his talent.

Kucherov took six shots in Monday's loss at Edmonton. But what impressed Cooper more was Kucherov's 14 attempts. One clanged off the post. A few others were blocked.

"If that starts being his norm now, pucks are definitely going to go in for him," Cooper said.

Kucherov said he is not going to shoot simply for the sake of shooting. He still wants to set up scoring chances for his linemates.

"I don't care what everybody says. 'Shoot the puck. Shoot it.' If I have a guy open, I'm going to give it to him," Kucherov said.

Kucherov, who watches clips of all his shifts, is studying them even more lately, searching for clues that will unlock his game.

His torrid start to the season, where he became only one of six players in league history to score in each of the first seven games and had 12 goals (19 points) through 11 games, was somewhat of a mirage. Kucherov said there were nights during that run where he did not play well and the puck still went in the net.

"I knew I played awful and the team wasn't playing well," Kucherov said, "but I still had a goal and everybody would talk about it."

Kucherov, who had a 13-game goalless drought in the middle of the 2014-2015 season, said he hopes to learn from this one because he knows goals will be even harder to come by during the playoffs. So he sticks to the routine that he had at the start of the season and continues to play his game, shoot when he can, pass when he cannot.

In between, he goes to the video in a quest for answers.

"I watch clips on how I play," he said. "What should I do better? I've been really busy lately just by watching what I do on the ice."

Contact Roger Mooney at [email protected] Follow @rogermooney50