Nikita Kucherov was barely off his crutches when he wanted to start shooting.

The 2019 Hart Trophy winner — who had hip surgery Dec. 29 — would head to his garage at his Tampa, Fla., home, where he had a synthetic ice surface installed years ago. During his five-month rehab, Kucherov peppered the net with shot after shot — hundreds a day — with many from his favorite spot (the right circle). Wrist shots. Snap shots. And, when he was physically ready, slap shots.

His hip was a work in progress. His hands? They were just fine.

Kucherov watched countless games on TV, both from home and the press box at Amalie Arena, saying it gave him a fresh perspective. He’d meet with coach Jon Cooper after games and talk about what he saw. He’d offer tips to assistant Jeff Halpern on the power play. He’s been on the ice for more than two months, his recovery a tease that tested his patience. You ask Steven Stamkos and Brayden Point, both world-class players, and they’ve never seen anyone work harder at his craft than Kucherov.

“He’s like a kid waiting for the candy store to open and he gets there a half-hour early and has to wait outside,” Cooper said. “He was just itching to get back into the game.”

“I’ve waited a long time for this,” Kucherov said.

No one knew what to expect when Kucherov made his season debut in Sunday’s Game 1 against Florida, his first game in nearly eight months. But few probably anticipated this: Kucherov delivered a clutch performance, scoring two power-play goals and setting up the game-tying goal by Point in the Lightning’s thrilling 5-4 victory over the Panthers at BB&T Center. Point scored the winner on a breakaway with just over a minute left, silencing the once-electric sellout crowd of 9,646, which felt like 18,000.