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AP Sports Writer
TAMPA, Fla. (AP) — Nothing Nikita Kucherov accomplishes on the ice seems to surprise the Tampa Bay Lightning.
Three days after returning from an injury to help the defending champions get back to hockey’s grandest stage, the playoff scoring leader had two goals and an assist Monday night to pace a 5-1 victory over the Montreal Canadiens in Game 1 of the Stanley Cup Final.
“He’s playing like a beast right now,” Lightning captain Steven Stamkos said.
Kucherov boosted his post- season-leading point total to 30 (seven goals, 23 assists) in 18 games after missing the entire regular season while recovering from hip surgery. His latest exploits come on the heels of a gritty Game 7 performance in the semifinals against the New York Islanders.
“It was tough mentally not being able to play, but it’s all in the past,” said Kucherov, who missed most of Game 6 against the Islanders after
taking a cross-check to the lower back. “I’m really enjoy- ing the moment. Happy to be with the boys. Just excited to play in the Final.”
Kucherov put the Lightning up 3-1 early in the third period with a fluky goal that Canadiens defenseman Ben Chiarot tried to bat down with his hand before it wound up in the net. He scored again at 11:25 of the third, then assist- ed on Stamkos’ power-play goal that made it 5-1 with just over a minute to go.
The Canadiens had not given up a power-play goal in an NHL playoff-record 13 consecutive games.
It was a solid start for the Lightning, who had never won the opener of a Stanley Cup Final before Monday night.
Nevertheless, it was just one game.
“We keep preaching to the guys you’re not going to win a series in one night. It’s not how it goes,” Tampa Bay coach Jon Cooper said. “There’s curveballs and sliders, fastballs and they’re all thrown at you at different times. But if you just keep consistent with your game, we trust that good things will happen.”
Game 2 is Wednesday night in Tampa.
“I think we had chances when the game was tighter,” Montreal defenseman Jeff Petry said. “If we bury those chances, it’s a different game. They got the third, fourth goal and we started trying to force things and push things.”
“I don’t think it was a blowout by any means,” Petry added. “I think we can be better and we’re looking for a rebound in Game 2.”
Vasilevskiy, a favorite to win the Vezina Trophy for the second time in three years, lost a bid for a fifth shutout this postseason when Chiarot scored his first career playoff goal for the Canadiens late in the second period.
The Russian goaltender blanked the New York Islanders twice in the semifinals, including 1-0 in Game 7. Chiarot ended Vasilevskiy’s streak of not yielding a goal at 97 minutes, 40 seconds.
“The positive is we didn’t play our best game. We know we can get better,” said Canadiens interim coach Luke
Richardson, who’s running the team in the absence of Dominique Ducharme, who tested positive for the coronavirus.
“I think they’re always a team that plays well and definitely creates off mistakes that you make,” Richardson added. “So by us playing better, and managing the puck better and maybe limiting those mistakes and creating a little bit more ourselves, I think we have a good way to go up and that’s going to be the positive out of it.”
Chiarot hit the post early in the second period with his team trailing 1-0. He finally got Montreal on the score- board with a shot that deflect- ed off Lightning defenseman Mikhail Sergachev before appearing to hit tow more players before eventually getting past Vasilevskiy at 17:40 of the period.
Cernak also scored his first career postseason goal for Tampa Bay. The defenseman playing in his 46th playoff game beat Carey Price from the slot off a pass from Ondrej Palat at 6:19 of the opening period.
Yanni Gourde redirected Blake Coleman’s shot for a 2- 0 lead at 5:47 of the second against Price, the first goal- tender in league history to win more than 400 regular-season and playoff games combined before making his Stanley Cup Final debut.
The Lightning are in the Stanley Cup Final for the third time since 2015. The Canadiens have won a NHL- record 24 championships, though none since 1993 — Tampa Bay’s first season in the league and the last time Montreal played in hockey’s biggest showcase.
Tampa Bay eliminated the Florida Panthers, Carolina Hurricanes and New York Islanders along the way, with Vasilevskiy extending an impressive streak of shutouts in series-clinching victories to four dating to last year Cup Final against Dallas.
Montreal had the worst record among 16 playoff qualifiers this season, but with Price leading the way the Canadiens played superb defense in ousting the Toronto Maple Leafs, Winnipeg Jets and Vegas Golden Knights.