Nikita Kucherov returned to the lineup for the Tampa Bay Lightning against the Calgary Flames at Amalie Arena on Thursday (7 p.m. ET; BSSUN, SNW, ESPN+, NHL LIVE).
The forward missed 32 games since last playing Oct. 16 when he sustained a lower-body injury. He had surgery Oct. 26 and was expected be out 8-10 weeks.
“This has been building,” coach Jon Cooper said. “We’ve been kind of targeting this game as the game he’s coming back. So I guess the really good thing is there’s no step back.
“Guys are excited tonight, but again there’s uncertainty with our lineup. But ‘Kuch’ is one of the certainties, so that’s good.”
Kucherov has scored four points (one goal, three assists) in three games this season. He missed the 2020-21 regular season while recovering from hip surgery before returning for the Stanley Cup Playoffs. He led the postseason with 32 points (eight goals, 24 assists) in 23 games to help the Lightning win the Stanley Cup for a second straight season.
“I think for him, he’s been through it before,” Lightning forward Alex Killorn said. “Last year was very impressive because of the sheer amount of games he missed … where he jumped right into the playoffs where the hockey is so elevated. He knows what to do to get himself ready. What that is? I don’t know. But he seems to have figured it out.”
Kucherov ranks eighth in the NHL in points since the 2014-15 season (533) despite playing three games the past two seasons.
“He’s one of the best players in the NHL,” Killorn said. “I think even watching him practice out there, even just like on the power play, it’s kind of special watching him back and how he can find players and how hard he works when he hasn’t been playing so he can be ready when his time is to come. He’s a special player.”
Kucherov returns to a lineup that got Brayden Point back Dec. 28 after the center missed 14 games with an upper-body injury. The Lightning went 11-2-1 without Point and are 22-8-5 this season, first in the Atlantic Division.
The Lightning also had forward Steven Stamkos in the lineup Thursday after he was a game-time decision with an undisclosed injury. Stamkos leads the Lightning with 40 points (16 goals, 24 assists) in 34 games this season.
To make room on the roster for Kucherov, forward Riley Nash was waived Wednesday. He was claimed by the Arizona Coyotes on Thursday.
NHL.com independent correspondent Corey Long contributed to this report