TAMPA FORWARD STAYING ON POINT IN PLAYOFF RUN
Brayden Point, who some called the “best player” in Tampa Bay’s 4-1 series win over Boston, has also been one of the best players against the Washington Capitals in the Eastern Conference final. But don’t tell him that. He doesn’t want to have to think about how he’s on the doorstep of playing in the Stanley Cup final. He doesn’t even want to be reminded that he’s in the playoffs. In Point’s mind, it’s still February or March and this is just another routine day in an 82-game regular season. It’s one of the ways that the 22-year-old is staying on the even keel and avoiding the pressures that come with what’s really at stake here. “I’m just playing like it’s the regular season,” said Point. “You play the whole year a certain way and then the playoffs come and it’s a little faster and bit more physical, but you still play the same way. At least, I do.”
The playoffs have a way of tightening the screws on even the most talented of NHL stars.
The trick is to stay loose, which is sometimes easier said than done when advancing to the next round depends on a game, a goal or a shift. We saw it in the first round when Toronto’s Auston Matthews had one goal and one assist against the Bruins, and in the second round when Pittsburgh’s Phil Kessel went without a goal against the Capitals. Point, on the other hand, has remained consistent, as though these last two months have been a continuation of the regular season.
“I think he’s got a lot of confidence from the regular season,” said Lightning defenceman Ryan McDonagh. “He’s utilizing that here in the playoffs. I think he realizes how vital his play is to our team success. With a young guy like that, it’s great that he feels that confidence out there. He’s been bringing it every night.” The Tampa Bay Lightning centre, who was named to the all-star game as an injury replacement, had 32 goals and 66 points in the regular season. Heading into Thursday’s Game 4 of the Eastern Conference final, he’s been slightly better with six goals and 14 points in 13 games. “We’ve seen him for two years now,” said Lightning defenceman Victor Hedman. “He’s just so important for us. He plays in all situations. I wouldn’t say surprised is the right word, but he just keeps taking steps and is a difference-maker on the ice for us. He’s unbelievable.” Indeed, Point’s progression has not followed the usual steps of someone who was drafted in the third round. He didn’t spend a season developing in the minors. He didn’t have to work his way up from the fourth line. Instead, for the first time in Steve Yzerman’s eight-year tenure as general manager, Point made the team as a first-year pro out of training camp. He then grabbed a spot on the top line thanks to an injury to Steven Stamkos.
“It’s unfortunate the injuries that we had last year, but it did give me an opportunity to play first-line minutes, power play and stuff like that,” Point said of his rookie season, in which he scored 40 points in 68 games.
“I think confidence-wise and development-wise, it was big for me to play those minutes in games where we were fighting for a playoff spot, so they were big games. I think that definitely helped and I just tried to carry that into this year.”
It’s not just Point’s offensive production that has stood out in these playoffs.
Against New Jersey in the first round of the playoffs, the diminutive centre matched up against the Devils’ top line and limited Hart Trophy finalist Taylor Hall to two goals and three even-strength points. In Game 1 against Boston, he was a minus-5 against the Bruins’ top line, but rebounded with three goals and six points in the next four games as the Lightning won the series in five games.
Point, who said he’s been getting a lot more “offence from playing defence,” scored two goals and four points in the first three games against the Capitals, where he’s seen time against Alex Ovechkin’s line.
Then again, he’s not really thinking about matchups or how big this moment is for him and the Lightning. That sort of thing can get you into trouble. “He’s just a hockey player,” said Lightning head coach Jon Cooper, who coached Point to a silver medal at last year’s world hockey championship in Sweden. “The puck drops and it’s game on for him. He is in the conference final, but he’s captained Canada’s world junior team, he’s been in some pretty big environments, so he’s been on this stage before. “He’s a big reason for why we’re here right now.”
Brayden Point has been a bellwether in Tampa’s playoff run with six goals and 14 points in 13 games heading into Game 4 of the Eastern Conference final.