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Nikita Kucherov, Heartbreak Kid for the Tampa Bay Lightning

PITTSBURGH – The Heartbreak Kid was the story in Game 5 of the Eastern Conference Final, his star-power and influence undeniable in its outcome. 

No, not Shawn Michaels – the other one. The Russian one, with the bolt of electricity on his chest.

It’s easy to forget that Kucherov is effectively a kid in hockey terms: 22 years old, having completed his third full season in the NHL. It’s impossible to miss the impact he’s had on this series against the Pittsburgh Penguins, and the playoffs as a whole: His 11 goals lead all scorers in the Stanley Cup Playoffs, and his three-point night in Tampa Bay’s Game 5 victory was a superstar turn on a night when the Penguins’ biggest names were silent.

It was all there for Pittsburgh: Home ice, rabid fans, a returning Marc-Andre Fleury, a chance to push the Lightning to the brink.

Kucherov broke their hearts.

“Whenever we need a big goal, we look to him. He’s always in the right place and he’s got a knack to score those big goals,” said winger Alex Killorn.

Kucherov tied the game in the second period, exploiting the defensive area to Fleury’s right where Jonathan Drouin was left alone earlier in the night for a stellar chance. Fleury moved to make a save in that situation; not so this time, as Kucherov snapped one home.

“You want them to play ‘D’. You can see they don’t like it. We’re always trying to put the puck behind them, create some chances,” said Kucherov of the Penguins.

Then, in the third period, his hard work with linemate Tyler Johnson paid off when Fleury kicked to the puck to Kucherov’s stick for a wraparound, tying the game 3-3 minutes before the end of regulation.

“We knew he hadn’t played in a while. Obviously we want to shoot more. We saw he was a little struggling,” said Kucherov of Fleury.

He would earn an assist on Johnson’s off-the-rump game-winner 53 seconds into overtime.

“It doesn’t matter who scores goals,” said Kucherov. “Last game, someone else scores the goals. The most important thing is we get W’s. That we play our structure.”

The Lightning remained poised and structured throughout the game, despite falling behind 2-0 and then 3-2. “We kept playing our game. Be responsible in our D-zone. Don’t have turnovers at the blue line. Try to put the puck behind their 'D', get some forecheck,” said Kucherov.

Perhaps they also knew that they had a winger who now has 42 points in 43 career playoff games – 22 of them goals – to come through when they’d need it most.

Coach Jon Cooper said that’s what rising stars in the NHL do.

“It just seems the bigger the moment, the bigger they rise to the occasion. He is proving that last year wasn't a fluke. He's just a gifted, skilled, determined player. He's really a pleasure to coach,” he said.

“The one thing, we talk about his goals and everything about that, but I think he's plus-17 in the playoffs. That's you're not just being responsible and scoring on one end. That means you're being responsible on the other end too. I don't think guys like him get enough credit for how they play the whole ice, and he's a big time player for us.”

For Kucherov, it’s as much a matter of “when” as “how” when scoring goals. Five of his 11 goals have been scored in the third period during these playoffs. 

The Lightning stand one win away from another trip to the Stanley Cup Final because Kucherov exerted his will on Game 5. What we’re seeing in the last two postseasons is a star being born – and a player who will likely be paid like one as a restricted free agent this summer.

“I’ve been here the whole time he’s risen from what he was his first year, to what he is now,” said Killorn of Kucherov. “He’s an elite player in this League, and these playoffs give him a stage to showcase himself.”

To put it in Shawn Michaels terms: He was the Heartbreak Kid in Game 5. He could be the Showstopper in Game 6.

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Greg Wyshynski is a writer for Yahoo Sports. Contact him at puckdaddyblog@yahoo.com or find him on Twitter. His book, TAKE YOUR EYE OFF THE PUCK, is available on Amazon and wherever books are sold.

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