DENVER -- On Stanley Cup Eve, the Tampa Bay Lightning received a gift.
Brayden Point was buzzing in the club’s final practice before the puck drops on its bid for a threepeat Wednesday at Ball Arena.
Between wingers Nick Paul and Ross Colton and returning to his usual bumper position on Tampa’s frightening top power-play unit, Point looked every bit like a man ready to return to action.
Just in time.
Out of action for a full month while rehabbing an undisclosed lower-body injury suffered in Game 7 of the first-round series against Toronto, Point is now leaning toward suiting up for Game 1 of the Final versus the Colorado Avalanche.
The Lightning's stud centreman responded well to Tuesday’s work, and head coach Jon Cooper officially confirmed his return on Wednesday — an incredible boost ahead of puck drop.
“Playoffs is the reason we play hockey — to have a chance to win the Stanley Cup. So, it was tough. But just seeing how they're playing made sitting out a lot easier,” Point says. “You can’t replicate playoff hockey in a practice. That just doesn't happen. So, it'll be an adjustment for sure.
“You got to make sure that when you come back, you’re going to help the team. The boys were playing well.”
Point’s imminent return should give the visitors a significant leg up in the series’ X-factor battle, as the Avalanche are also hopeful their second-line pivot, Nazem Kadri (thumb), can recover fast enough to make a difference.
Point — five feet, 10 inches of try-hard — is a difference-maker of the highest calibre, one who elevates his performance on the grandest stage.
He has racked up 77 points in 74 career playoff games. He produced more points (56) during the Lightning’s back-to-back championship runs than any of his teammates and has scored more playoff goals (30) in the past three postseasons than anybody.
During the Eastern Conference Final, New York Rangers coach Gerard Gallant acknowledged that Tampa was managing to trudge on despite being down “arguably their best player.”
Gallant won’t get any argument from Nikita Kucherov.
“He’s been the best player on our team for multiple years. He proved [to] everybody he can play. He’s not a big-sized guy, but he's such a competitor and such a fun player to watch and learn from,” the 5-foot-11 Kucherov says.
“If you watch him play, you can take his vision, his skating ability, the way he pushes hard to win the puck battles. He’s so angry when he plays. For a small guy like he is, he plays big.
“That’s something that drives me, too. I see him doing that, and then I will do the same. I want to compete with him even though we’re on the same team. I want to do better than him.”
Point suffered his injury falling awkwardly into the boards in the first period of Game 7 in Toronto on May 14, twisting his right leg while outracing Mark Giordano to a puck. Screaming in terrible pain, he limped off the ice, only to bravely attempt one shift in Period 2.
Hobbling around the ice like a wounded deer, the guy could barely skate. It was ugly to watch.
Point says he was so caught up in the moment — a do-or-die elimination game — that he wanted desperately to push through the pain. His body simply would not cooperate. So, he glided to the bench and cheered the boys on.
“You don't want to feel like you're leaving the fight," Point explains. "I just knew that I wasn't gonna be able to help the team anymore. So, you know, that's when you sit down.”
In Point’s absence, role players such as Brandon Hagel, Paul and Corey Perry have responded well to increased responsibility, and coach Jon Cooper has, at times, simply rolled with seven defencemen.
What the Lightning lacked in goal-scoring, they made up for in goal-preventing.
The “Tampa Bay Find-A-Ways” — as a smiling captain Steven Stamkos dubs them — survived that Game 7 in Toronto plus two more rounds, buying the roster enough time for Point to get healthy.
“Definitely that was something in everybody's head. Just we didn't know how long he's injured. Everybody had to step up and play the right way and play for each other,” Kucherov says, “so he can have a chance [to] be playing the finals if we make it.
“We’re all excited to see him back.”