Nikita Kucherov the latest youngster to electrify the Lightning

TAMPA, Fla. — Nikita Kucherov’s voice drowned in the sounds of celebration. His first career hat trick was a large reason why the Tampa Bay Lightning’s dressing room was filled with upbeat music with bass that bounced off the walls, these minutes sweet relief after the sting of a five-goal loss to Minnesota three days earlier.

In the moments after his team’s sixth victory became official, following a 7-3 rout of the Arizona Coyotes on Tuesday at Amalie Arena, soft-spoken Kucherov became the man of the moment.

He sat in a corner stall and tried to articulate what this scoring outburst meant for his young NHL career. The task wasn’t easy. The music beat on above him, the thump-thump-thump full of life like a heartbeat, and he struggled to find the right words.

"It was my first time," Kucherov said, a large crowd huddled around him. "That was amazing."

His performance fit the description, and it also served as a marker of growth for the 21-year-old native of Moscow, who burst onto the scene with a goal in the first shift of his NHL debut on Nov. 25, 2013, against the New York Rangers but lived enough of a decline to become a healthy scratch twice in the Eastern Conference quarterfinals last season.

This night was different. He was different.

Kucherov’s rally, when he scored goals in each period to finish with four for the season, was a sign of many things. His growth. His maturity. His evolving confidence.

"When that kid is on, and he’s hot," Lightning coach Jon Cooper said, "stuff like what happened tonight happens."

Lightning vs. Coyotes

The signs have been there that such a display was possible. Kucherov, who finished with nine goals and 18 points in 52 games with the Lightning last season, led Tampa Bay with three goals in the most recent preseason. He can be a streaky talent, and he took lumps in his early NHL career, a reality that should make moments like Tuesday all the more satisfying for him.

Certainly, Kucherov is no finished product. He’s still trying to find his way. Tuesday, he played on the same line as Tyler Johnson and Ondrej Palat, both former Calder Trophy finalists who should build Kucherov’s confidence with their presence alone.

So there’s more to discover with Kucherov. Cooper has seen the young player’s growth since late last season. Teammates have witnessed it as well. The progress will continue, and with Tuesday’s performance as evidence, the winger can produce fireworks if his fuse becomes lit.

"Right now, though, he has matured," Johnson said. "He’s gotten to that point where he’s just always in the right position. When you’re in the right position, you’re going to make those plays."

Those plays, if made by Kucherov often, will enhance the Lightning’s depth in a year when they’ll need multiple faces to remain an Eastern Conference contender in a season of high anticipation. The headline names will receive their points and fame: Steven Stamkos and Valtteri Filppula, Ryan Callahan, Johnson and Palat. Trusted names become so for a reason.

But if players such as Kucherov offer the occasional offensive surprise, if players like him become a factor, then the Lightning will be all that more dangerous. More weapons, more potential, more possibility.

"His skill-set is pretty impressive," Lightning center Brian Boyle said. "He’s been holding the dirty areas, too, several plays that might not get written about or might not show up on the highlight reels the last couple games."

Kucherov, on this night, did plenty to become a highlight-reel star and receive praise in the many words written about his breakout effort. It was deserved.

On a night to remember, a man of few words let his play do the talking.

The music above him, bumping on and on, was proof of a job well done.

"I just play my game," he said.

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