As the Tampa Bay Lightning embark on their third consecutive trip to the Stanley Cup Final, and their fourth trip since 2015, they did so in an improbable way — without star center Brayden Point. He was injured during Game 7 of their first-round series against the Toronto Maple Leafs and has slowly been working his way back.
Before the decisive Game 6 of the Eastern Conference Final, Point participated in the morning skate and wasn’t ruled out until pre-game warmups. Now, he has until Wednesday to finish getting ready if he is going to make his return for Game 1 of the Final against the Colorado Avalanche.
The fact that the Lightning made it as far as they did without Point is impressive, but to sweep the Florida Panthers, then win four straight after going down 2-0 to the New York Rangers, makes what Tampa Bay accomplished arguably its greatest playoff achievement of the last three seasons.
The Lightning also did so with a power-play scoring at just 22.58 percent. Against the Rangers, those numbers dropped to 21.42 percent when the Lightning went 3-for-14 on the power play and did not score a goal with the man advantage in their final three games of the series. That’s just one aspect where he is going to give the Lightning a jolt.
Since the start of the 2020 Stanley Cup Playoffs, Point leads the NHL with 30 goals – 12 scored on the power play. His ability to generate chances off the rush, where very few NHL players can keep up with him, has created odd-man chances and momentum-swinging goals for his team. He also has three overtime goals, including in Game 6 against Toronto this year when the Lightning trailed the series 3-2.
With a matchup against the Avalanche, one of the biggest concerns for Lightning fans is Colorado’s speed, especially Nathan MacKinnon. With Point’s potential return, Lightning head coach Jon Cooper will likely look to match him up against the MacKinnon line to help neutralize that speed. While Anthony Cirelli is Tampa Bay’s best defensive forward, he doesn’t quite have the speed Point does, and while his line — along with Alex Killorn and Brandon Hagel — was able to shut down the Rangers’ top scoring line led by Mika Zibanejad, they would have their hands full with MacKinnon.
Point Will Alleviate Some Pressure
In Point’s absence, a lot of the responsibility fell on Nikita Kucherov‘s shoulders to create offense and set teammates up for success. While that resulted in Kucherov tying Ondrej Palat for a team-high eight points in the Eastern Conference Final, he also became prone to untimely and ugly turnovers. The Kucherov-Palat-Steven Stamkos line willed the Lightning to victory, but the chemistry between Kucherov and Point can’t be understated. They always know where the other is, or will be, at any given moment, which will be tough for Colorado to defend against.
Kucherov assisted on 12 of Point’s 28 goals this season, including the postseason, while Point assisted on six of Kucherov’s 25 goals. Point’s return at even strength and on the power play will lift the team’s play to a higher level, which we haven’t seen in over a month.
That also takes some of the pressure off of the other lines. Having the Lightning’s second-leading goal scorer of 2021-22 back means that while the Lightning have had key contributions from players like Pat Maroon, Ross Colton, and Mikhail Sergachev, those players won’t be required to score as much in order to win. In fact, it will create opportunities for those other players because Colorado will be forced to have their top defenders worrying about Point as well as the first line, which had so much success against the Rangers and Panthers.
Point Shaking the Rust Off
After such a long layoff, Point will be rusty, and it’ll take a little while to get his legs back. However, the Avalanche will be dealing with some rust of their own. Having to wait from June 6 until June 15 between playoff games, following their sweep of the Calgary Flames, that’s the same nine-day period the Lightning faced ahead of the Eastern Conference Final.
It took Tampa until the second game to get back on track and play to a level that’s expected of them. With the Avalanche facing the same, Point’s recovery time may not be as noticeable as it would have been against a team with a short break between series. However, like Stamkos’ return against the Dallas Stars in the 2020 Stanley Cup Final, it would be smart to start Point on the fourth line for at least Game 1, limiting his minutes as he becomes re-acclimated to the speed and intensity of playoff hockey.
Point will still be part of the top power-play unit and have some protection alongside him in Maroon. As he continues to return to game shape, his minutes can increase as Cooper searches for the right matchups against the Western Conference champions.
This is by far the biggest test the Lightning will face in their four Stanley Cup Final appearances over the last eight seasons, but one that they can win with their defensive mindset and the return of one of their most productive players. Experience, confidence, and trust in the “process over outcome” should give the Bolts a leg up in their series against a team reaching this pinnacle for the first time since 2001.
James has been covering sports – primarily the NFL and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers – for nearly ten years. In addition to covering the Tampa Bay Lightning for The Hockey Writers, he is currently the co-host of the Locked On Bucs podcast and YouTube show and writes for various NFL outlets. When he isn’t writing or podcasting, he is focused on his son’s hockey schedule with the Jr Miami Redhawks. He currently resides in Dayton, Ohio with his wife and four sons.