By FRED GOODALL
AP Sports Writer
TAMPA, Fla. (AP) – Like many young Russian hockey players, Nikita Kucherov grew up following Alex Ovechkin’s career, hoping to someday become a prolific scorer and maybe even compete against his countryman in the Stanley Cup playoffs.
The 24-year-old Tampa Bay Lightning winger has spent five seasons fulfilling the first portion of the dream.
The other part becomes a reality Friday night, when the Lightning open the Eastern Conference finals against Ovechkin’s Washington Capitals.
“When he came in the league, he was the best player, and I mean he’s still the best player,” Kucherov said.
“Everybody would talk about him, and I definitely wanted to be in his spot one day, scoring goals,” the Lightning star added. “He’s a great example for young kids and someone to look up to.”
Ovechkin is also looking for his first trip to the Stanley Cup Final, a platform Kucherov has already performed on.
The Lightning, who also feature of couple of other young Russians playing key roles in goaltender Andrei Vasilevskiy and rookie defenseman Mikhail Sergachev, are in the conference final for the third time in four years.
In 2015, they defeated the New York Rangers before losing to the Chicago Blackhawks in the Cup Final.
“It’s great competition to play against the best players and then against your countrymen,” Kucherov said.
“I think it’s great for Russia to see the young guys come into North America and go through the CHL, AHL and then make it to the NHL,” he added. “It’s great to see and to see how the kids want to be in the best league in the world. They don’t care about the money in the KHL, they want to be in the best league and play against the best. It’s nice to see.”
The Lightning have been exceptional through the first two rounds of the playoffs, going 6-1 at home while eliminating both the New Jersey Devils and Boston Bruins in five games.
The Capitals beat Columbus in the opening round before ousting the two-time defending Stanley Cup champion Pittsburgh Penguins in six games.
“They are similar to us in that they have a pretty deep lineup, a very lethal power play and forwards that can really change the momentum of the game with how good they are,” Lightning captain Steven Stamkos said.
“We are going to need to rely on our depth as well and stay disciplined. That’s something we’ve talked about going against Boston with how good their power play is and we saw first hand that if we are going to take penalties, teams are going to make us pay,” Stamkos added. “Washington is very similar in that regard. That will be one of the keys for us.”
Ovechkin expects the Atlantic Division winners to be a stern test, too.
“Right now, in this situation in this time of year, everybody has the best players, the best goalies, and you have to be the best to beat them,” the Capitals star said.
“That has to be in our mind and we have to play as a group, not play individually.”
Some things to know about the Capitals and Lightning, one-time Southeast Division rivals meeting in the playoffs for the first time since 2011:
CAPITALS REINFORCEMENTS: Washington won Game 6 in overtime at Pittsburgh without top center Nicklas Backstrom and wingers Andre Burakovsky and Tom Wilson.
Backstrom, who took a shot from Justin Schultz off his right hand in Game 5 against the Penguins on Saturday, skated and did some light stickhandling Thursday; Burakovsky (out with upper-body injury) practiced and are each considered day-to-day.
Wilson will be back off a three-game suspension, and with Backstrom and Burakovsky potentially close, the Capitals could have their full lineup soon.
“The first instinct is to try to put the lines back together that you had, but this time of year, you go with the guys who are going,” coach Barry Trotz said. “The guys that are going well, you use, and the other guys wait for another opportunity. When I get the word, then we’ll put them back together.”
ROAD WARRIORS: The Capitals are 5-1 on the road through two rounds and 9-3 away from home going back to the 2017 playoffs. It helps Trotz to be able to get his top defensive pairing of Dmitry Orlov and Matt Niskanen out against opponents’ stars, but beginning on the road could prove beneficial for Washington.
“With the matchups on the road, you don’t get them all the time so I think guys are a little more aware of who they’re on the ice against, maybe a little more engaged in terms of knowing who’s on the ice,” winger Brett Connolly said.
“So I think we’re just playing on the road. Barry’s just throwing guys over the boards and they ultimately get to decide who they want to play against that line, so guys are feeling confident and comfortable and just playing and feel good about themselves.”
LONG TIME SINCE 2011: Only five players in this series were around when the Lightning and Capitals last met in the playoffs back in 2011: Tampa Bay’s Steven Stamkos and Victor Hedman and Washington’s Backstrom, Alex Ovechkin and John Carlson. The Lightning won in a sweep before losing in seven to Boston in the East final.
“Obviously we haven’t played these guys in meaningful games like this for a while,” Stamkos said. “So we can definitely expect a different series than that was.”
AP Hockey Writer Stephen Whyno contributed.
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