EDMONTON — We should savour every moment of this.
Not only is Brayden Point tearing through the NHL’s return-to-playoffs at a level seldom seen, but it’s not entirely clear how much more the Tampa Bay Lightning’s play-driving centre has left in him to give.
Somewhat incredibly, Point has three goals and four assists to show for the four games played in the Eastern Conference Final so far. And he’s accomplished that while being hobbled by an injury which has kept him from skating in five and a half of the 12 periods contested between the Lightning and New York Islanders during this series.
On Sunday afternoon, Point was stapled to the bench for the final 9:37 of Tampa’s 4-1 victory. His coach, Jon Cooper, would later concede “we’re trying to manage him.”
They could do so comfortably towards the end of Game 4 because of the insurance goal Point and linemates Ondrej Palat and Nikita Kucherov created early in the third period. That one will be recorded as the ninth of the playoffs for Point, but it was the result of a dominant top-line shift where they basically passed it into the net.
In the context of his last few days, this was a sublime effort from Point.
He could barely climb onto the player’s bench after taking an innocuous-looking hit that ultimately forced him to miss more than half of Game 2. Then, after missing Game 3 entirely, he covered more ice than any member of the Lightning during the first 20 minutes here Sunday.
He picked up an assist on Palat’s second-period goal — rolling his wrists ever so slightly to send the puck safely between Brock Nelson and Adam Pelech after gaining the blue line — and is now tied with Kucherov and Nathan MacKinnon for the playoff scoring lead at 25 points.
That’s more than any player managed in all of last year’s playoffs. And Point got there in the parts of 16 games he’s been healthy enough to skate in, amassing a ridiculous 4.77 points per hour played this summer — surpassing MacKinnon (4.58), Kucherov (4.22) and everyone else who stepped foot inside the NHL bubbles.
“He’s been our best player,” said Palat.
“I’d go as far as to say he’s the most dangerous guy in the playoffs this year,” added teammate Blake Coleman.
And yet there may be a case to keep Point out of Tuesday’s Game 5 even with an opportunity to move on to the Stanley Cup Final. The Lightning have some breathing room with a 3-1 series lead, and he was clearly in discomfort after Pelech leaned into him with his six-foot-three, 218-pound frame.
Point needed to use both arms to lift himself off the ice and had a long chat with a team trainer when he got back to the bench. He wouldn’t take another shift in the game.
“It’s the playoffs, and these guys are playing hard, hard minutes,” said Cooper. “You watch the intensity in these games and they just keep increasing with every game that’s played and every round that’s played. It’s no different in this series.
“It’s a tough series and I’m sure guys on both teams are having to fight through things.”
The games in this Eastern Conference Final have been tighter than the aggregate score would suggest. Islanders coach Barry Trotz acknowledged that the biggest differentiator has been the production of the respective top lines, with Palat-Point-Kucherov outproducing Anders Lee-Mathew Barzal-Jordan Eberle 8-1 in goals.
“Yeah, their first line has put a mark on us in a couple games here,” said Trotz.
A lot of that runs through Point, who is strong on his edges and comfortable going to areas of the ice that require him to engage physically. That allows him to create offence both off the cycle and off the rush, and he doesn’t skirt defensive responsibilities to do either.
He’s a complete weapon that gets even more dangerous when the intensity is ratcheted up, just as it was during a Game 4 that remained 0-0 past the midway point. The Islanders didn’t miss any opportunities to finish a check on him and still couldn’t slow the Tampa engine who was already playing at something less than 100 per cent.
“I mean he was all over it. He was in on everything,” said Cooper.
“He’s a special talent,” added Coleman. “He tilts the ice every time he’s out there.”
Imagine if he was fully healthy?