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Islanders-Lightning Game 7 drama revolves around the fate of Nikita Kucherov

Nikita Kucherov of the Tampa Bay Lightning warms

Nikita Kucherov of the Tampa Bay Lightning warms up prior to Game Five of the Stanley Cup Semifinals against the New York Islanders at Amalie Arena on June 21, 2021. Credit: Getty Images/Mike Ehrmann

Nassau Coliseum workers cleaned up the beer cans and other debris littering the ice with remarkable efficiency after the Islanders’ 3-2 overtime victory over the Lightning late Wednesday night.

That was good work, and it also served as an unintended message for everyone following the teams’ Stanley Cup semifinal: Game 6 was heck of a party, but last call for this round awaits on Friday night in Tampa.

Time to put the fun and historic import of the potential last game at the Coliseum on a side burner and get to some straight hockey talk in advance of the Islanders’ biggest game in 37 years.

This, for example: The Islanders’ best player, Mathew Barzal, had his best game of the playoffs in Game 6. The Lightning’s best all-around player, Nikita Kucherov, might not play at all in Game 7.

That dichotomy seems potentially important in a closely contested series — except for Game 5! — between experienced teams that figure not to be intimidated by the big moment.

Lightning coach Jon Cooper predictably offered no update on Thursday regarding Kucherov’s status after he departed Game 6 very early, possibly because of a cross-check from behind by Scott Mayfield.

All Kucherov has done is lead the NHL in playoff scoring, by a wide margin, with 27 points. Perhaps most important, the Lightning’s famed power play runs through him.

"If that scenario came about, we’d have to count on the guy we bring into the lineup," said Cooper, a former Hofstra lacrosse and club hockey player.

Cooper said such injuries open the doors for others, such as Anthony Cirelli, who assisted on one Lightning goal and scored the other in Game 6.

"You just plug guys in," Cooper said. "If you’re fortunate enough to win the game, it makes for one hell of a story."

Islanders coach Barry Trotz correctly noted that Kucherov’s fill-in on the first power-play unit, Ondrej Palat, is no slouch, but he added that taking someone such as Kucherov off the unit "changes the dynamic."

"He’s distributed the puck probably better than anybody, at least this year in the playoffs," Trotz said. "From that standpoint, there will be a little bit of a difference."

See: Hockey talk!

It is easy in these situations to get caught up in Game 7 platitudes, true as they may be.

(Trotz: "These are things that when you’re a young kid or a young coach you dream of these situations, and so there’s one tomorrow night and that’s fantastic.")

But one of these teams is the defending Stanley Cup champion and the other also is battle-tested and stubborn as heck. So it’s big, big, big, for sure, but not too big for these guys to handle.

"Just stay in the moment, enjoy it, embrace it and don’t get small," Trotz said. "Don’t get wound up. Stay in the moment, stay calm and give your best effort."

Asked what he saw when his team trailed 2-0 on Wednesday, Trotz said, "I saw resiliency. I saw determination. I saw what I’ve seen all year, a team that has backbone, has character, has all that."

Now they are 60 minutes — or maybe 61:08, as in Game 6 — away from a Cup Final and at least two more games at the Coliseum. (Next time minus the beer cans part of the celebration, OK?)

Let’s give the final words here to Cal Clutterbuck, who has been manic on the ice and grumpy off it throughout these playoffs, and had his game face on early on Thursday morning before boarding a plane to Tampa.

"We’ve always kind of shown up and will continue to show up," he said. "It’s kind of what we are. It’s who we are."

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