Lightning X-factor Brayden Point rebounds with big Game 2

Brayden Point had a four-point night to lead the Lightning to a 4-2 win over the Bruins, tying their series 1-1.

TAMPA, Fla. – Brayden Point eclipsed 30 goals and 30 assists for the Tampa Bay Lightning this season, but his primary objective had nothing to do with scoring.

He’s the man Jon Cooper tasked with shutting down top opponents, getting fed a steady diet of Tavareses, Crosbys and Couturiers while the Lightning became the top team in the Eastern Conference. So even as challenging as Point’s assignment was to open Round 2 – a heart-raising matchup with Boston’s BPM line (Bergeron, Pastrnak, Marchand) – it was stunning to see him walk away from a Game 1 loss having been on the ice for five goals against.

It sent him to the video room in search of the tendencies that allow the feared Bruins trio to routinely carve open seams in coverage.

As for his coach? Cooper didn’t flinch. He gave "zero" consideration to switching out of the Point vs. Bergeron matchup and was rewarded with a series-tying 4-2 victory on Monday night.

"We watched him. We watched that line check the best lines in the league all year and there was no reason to sit here and say: ‘They had one [poor] game’ and panic and say they can’t do it," said Cooper. "We know they can do it. We have faith in them. I thought they were outstanding tonight.

"He clearly was not minus-5 tonight."

No, the 22-year-old went from the worst statistical game of his NHL career to the best. He had a goal and three assists – joining Tyler Johnson and Vincent Lecavalier as the only players in Lightning history with a four-point playoff game – and managed to outscore the Bergeron line 2-1 in head-to-head play at even strength.

It’s not a stretch to call Point the ‘X-factor’ in Tampa’s Stanley Cup conquest this spring.

The former third-round pick has arrived in the NHL with Bergeron-like qualities and was still playing for the Moose Jaw Warriors when the Lightning lost in the 2015 Stanley Cup final and 2016 Eastern Conference final.

What he’s done is added an extra element to a stacked core, serving as the third twin on a revived Triplets line between Johnson and Ondrej Palat. That’s left J.T. Miller, Steven Stamkos and Nikita Kucherov to form a more offensive-minded unit that should leave Bruins coach Bruce Cassidy with some interesting matchup decisions when he gets last change at TD Garden for Game 3 on Wednesday.

In Point, the Lightning have unearthed a competitor. The Calgary native finished a close second in what was thought to be an unwinnable race against Connor McDavid during the fastest skater competition at the all-star game here earlier this year.

It’s why Cooper felt so comfortable throwing him back over the boards against Bergeron and Co. in a must-win Game 2. He made no excuses for the ugly stats sheet on Saturday afternoon and vowed to be better.

"I think that’s motivation just because personally guys are upset with the way they played," said Point.

"The kid’s a hockey player, he competes hard. Trust me if there was any talk of pulling them off that line I think those three guys would have marched right into my room and said ‘What are you doing?"’ said Cooper. "But it’s a challenge because the line they’re playing against is a really good line. It’s been a war between those two for two games. They got the better of them in Game 1 and our guys got the better of them in Game 2.

"That’s what happens when you’ve got a bunch of good hockey players going against each other."

The Bruins are more than a one-line team, but it’s awfully difficult to ignore that No. 1 line. They completely dismantled Toronto in the first round and rang up 11 points in the series opener vs. Tampa.

Even in Monday’s losing effort, Bergeron found Charlie McAvoy off the rush to make it 1-1 near the end of a first period where the visitors were thoroughly outplayed.

That’s when Point found another gear – racing up the boards on a loose puck to feed Johnson for the 2-1 goal before intercepting an errant Marchand pass at the offensive blue-line and sliding a smooth backhand dish to Palat to make it 3-1. He capped it off by hitting the empty net.

"We’re a confident line," said Johnson. "We needed to have a bounce-back, we needed to have an answer and I thought we did that tonight. I thought we competed really hard, I thought we played hard and we got rewarded with some chances and some opportunities.

"Things were going our way a little bit."

It’s easy to overlook the fact that Point is just a second-year pro getting his first taste of the Stanley Cup playoffs. He’s quickly become an integral part of the Lightning machine.

If his line can outproduce the Bergeron trio in this best-of-seven, Tampa is likely to move on. Heck, even if they can play them to a saw-off it might be enough to give Kucherov and Stamkos a path to win the day.

But Point is not getting too bogged down by the big picture. He’s trying to zero-in on the details that make B-P-M so dangerous. He’s already had his pulse spike amid the ferocity of playoff hockey at this level.

"Just the effort you have to put in," said Point. "The game’s a lot faster and guys are working a lot harder. It’s more physical, it’s more intense. You’ve got to be ready every shift."

On Monday, he was more than ready. He gave Boston something to think about on the flight home.

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