TAMPA FOR­WARD STAY­ING ON POINT IN PLAY­OFF RUN

Windsor Star - - SPORTS - MICHAEL TRAIKOS mtraikos@post­media.com twit­ter.com/Michael_Traikos

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.”

PATRICK SMITH/GETTY IMAGES

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.

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