They’ve been dominating tournaments together for more than a decade.
So as the Tampa Bay Lightning raced home Tuesday morning to beat Hurricane Elsa and prepare for another shot at closing out the Stanley Cup, it did not rank as a major surprise that Nikita Kucherov and Andrei Vasilevskiy were considered Conn Smythe co-favourites while they did it.
Except: The two men, born 403 days and nearly 3,000 kilometres apart in Russia, are not always front and centre on a team featuring more stars than anyone else. They finished third (Kucherov) and fourth (Vasilevskiy) in voting for playoff MVP last year despite similarly stellar individual runs.
Recognition comes and goes even if the performance remains steady.
When first they were teammates, Kucherov led the 2011 under-18 world championships in scoring while Vasilevskiy posted the best save percentage. Russia claimed bronze at the event, beating Canada 6-4 after losing to Sweden in the semis, and Kucherov was recognized as the tournament’s top forward.
“He was always special, always super skilled,” said Vasilevskiy. “It’s funny, a lot of the experts and the fake coaches didn’t really believe in him and they’re saying he’ll never be a big star and all of that stuff. But in the end, he’s a great player and one of the best in the NHL. He’s super smart, super skilled, a hard worker. Never satisfied.
“Even after scoring like four or five points, he’s never satisfied, he wants to score six or seven points a game. Just a classic Kuch. Always trying to get better and just pushing himself in the game and practice.
“That’s what makes him the best in the world.”