NEWARK, N.J. — In his first shootout attempt in the NHL, 20-year-old Nikita Kucherov pulled off the Peter Forsberg to perfection in Washington.
The move was made famous by Forsberg when he introduced it to the hockey world during the 1994 Olympic gold medal shootout win against Canada. It is pulled off when the shooter gets the goaltender to slide one way while the puck is pushed back with one hand by the shooter in the opposite direction and slowly slides into the net.
“If you have any indication of what is going on in that kid’s head, just watch his shootout goal,’’ Lightning head coach Jon Cooper said. “Not too many guys are going to pull that off, especially in their first 10 games of their career, and he did it with ease and grace and confidence.
“And then there was no rah, rah, rah. He just skated right back to the bench and sat down. I like that it indicated that he can just spew that kind of confidence. The sky is the limit for him.’’
By all accounts Kucherov probably should not be playing at the NHL level at this point, and Tampa Bay’s injury situation perhaps forced the call-up sooner than planned. It’s not that he’s incapable, but seven months ago he was in junior hockey and Lightning general manager Steve Yzerman wants the team’s top prospects to develop properly by playing in the minors to cut their teeth.
But despite just 17 games of pro experience at the American Hockey League level to start his first season in the professional ranks, the former second-round draft pick has shown his progress is accelerated more than most.
His offensive instincts and hockey IQ are described as “off the charts’’ by those who have watched him play at lower levels. Though he has not taken the NHL by storm — despite scoring a goal on the first shot of his first NHL shift Nov. 25 — he has shown plenty in his eight games since being called up to indicate he will be a regular contributor in the very near future.
Kucherov has three goals to his credit, including goals in back-to-back games heading into tonight’s game at New Jersey. He may have hit a bit of a wall after his first few games, not uncommon with many first-year players, but he is starting to feel more comfortable with his surroundings and is confident on the ice.
“I feel more comfortable each game,’’ Kucherov said. “I have some really good support from the guys and the coaching staff and I think that helps the nerves go away for me. I have more confidence with the puck in the (offensive) zone and in the (defensive) zone and I feel pretty comfortable right now.’’
In the past two games, Kucherov has been reunited with J.T. Brown after the two were part of the top line in Syracuse to start the season, when Kucherov had 13 goals and 24 points in 17 games. Despite being recalled Nov. 24, Kucherov still leads the Crunch in scoring and still ranks in the top 15 in the AHL.
During practice Friday, Kucherov also did some work with the top power-play unit.
“He seems to have some scoring chances every game. He’s got a great set of skills and he’s dangerous in front of the net,’’ Lightning captain Marty St. Louis said.
After Kucherov was promoted, Cooper’s first conversation with the rookie essentially was that if he wanted to stay at the NHL level, play good defense and the offense will come. In the early going, that has been a reason Kucherov has seen his ice time consistently hover around 13-14 minutes per night. And now the offense is starting to come.
“I’ve said all along when he shoots pucks they have eyes,’’ Cooper said. “He just has to get that mentality of most of the time that any shot he can take is not a bad shot. I think he’s been doing that and he’s also been playing the full 200 feet of the ice and backchecking really hard.
“When you tend to do that, you tend to get offensive chances because you’re playing well defensively and I think that’s what has really helped him out.’’