Nikita Kucherov said he feels healthy, comfortable and confident as the Tampa Bay Lightning forward prepares to face another opponent for the first time this season.
The Kucherov effect has already proven to be one of the best things the Lightning have going for them in the Stanley Cup Playoffs. It could be their biggest advantage in the Stanley Cup Second Round against the Carolina Hurricanes beginning with Game 1 at PNC Arena in Raleigh, North Carolina, on Sunday (5 p.m. ET; NBCSN, SN, TVAS).
"Yep, that's the X-factor there," Hurricanes coach Rod Brind'Amour said. "He's not only one of the best, talented players, he's certainly close to it, and he's probably the freshest guy in the League, you know. You add those couple factors, it doesn't bode well. But hey, it's part of it. It's a huge weapon that they hadn't had that we're definitely going to have to be aware of."
The Florida Panthers were aware of the same thing heading into the first round.
Kucherov missed the regular season recovering from hip surgery he had on Dec. 29, meaning the Panthers hadn't faced the Lightning with Kucherov's game-changing skill and hockey IQ as part of their game plan, particularly on the power play.
The difference was obvious.
Kucherov scored two goals and had an assist in a 5-4 win in Game 1. He scored four points (one goal, three assists) in a 6-2 win in Game 4. He scored 11 points (three goals, eight assists) in the series, including seven points (three goals, four assists) on the power play operating out of the right circle.
"It took a few games for me to adjust to the speed and physically adjust to the game, but after two games I felt normal, I felt like how I would feel during the season and didn't have any issues," Kucherov said.