WASHINGTON, D.C. — Brayden Point, who was called the “best player in the series” against Boston, has also been one of the best players against Washington 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 the 22-year-old stays on an even keel and avoids the playoff pressures.
“I’m just playing like it’s the regular season,” Point said. “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.”
Regardless of a player’s experience, the playoffs have a way of tightening the screws on 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 single game, goal or 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 scoring against the Capitals.
Point, on the other hand, has remained consistent, as though these last two months have been continuation of the regular season.
“I think he’s got a lot of confidence from the regular season,” Lightning defenceman Ryan McDonagh said. “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.”
Point, who was named to the All-Star Game as an injury replacement, had 32 goals and 66 points in the regular season. Heading into 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,” Lightning defenceman Victor Hedman said. “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 Steven Yzerman’s eight-year tenure as general manager, Point made the team as a first-year pro of training camp. He then grabbed a spot centring the top line thanks to an injury to Steven Stamkos.
“It’s unfortunate the injures 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 last year’s 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. This year the team obviously played really well and individual success came with team success.”
It’s not just Point’s offensive production that has stood out in these playoffs. Against New Jersey in the first round, the five-foot-11 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, Point was minus-5 against the Bruins’ top line, but rebounded with three goals and six points in 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’s the sort of thing that could 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 on some pretty big environments, so he’s been on this stage before.
“He’s a big reason for why we’re here right now.”
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