TORONTO — It’s more like a video game than real life. It’s the kind of line you throw around in conversation: “Imagine if they all played together.”
Well, the Lightning are doing it. They put Steven Stamkos, Brayden Point and Nikita Kucherov on the same line. Three of the league’s top 13 scorers last season are playing together.
Coach Jon Cooper usually puts his three best forwards together late in games when the Lightning need a push, but Thursday was the first time they started a game together, with Point making his season debut against the Maple Leafs after offseason hip surgery.
Stamkos used the word “excited” in talking about the line before the game. Kucherov called it fun after the Lightning’s 7-3 win.
“It’s so much fun to play with those guys,” said Kucherov, who had two goals and four points. “Hopefully we stay (in this line), score a lot of goals and help the team have success.”
That line put the Lightning (2-1-1) on the board 2:28 into the game and added two more even-strength goals.
Point’s second goal of the game — he had two, and three points total — showed just why the line is so dangerous. He carried the puck out of the zone with speed and fed it to Stamkos, who had all sorts of time and dropped it off for Kucherov. Kucherov then put a shot-pass on net, and Point tipped the puck in.
Stamkos, who had a goal and four points, credited the second Point goal to Point’s use of speed to create time and space. He compared Point to the Oilers’ Connor McDavid in that sense. Cooper said no one has McDavid’s speed but Point is in the category of players who not only have speed but can play with it.
“The energy and the pace (Point) plays with, you have to be skating to keep up with him,” Cooper said. “He’s good for the players around him because his pace of play is so high.”
The Lightning had been building up to using this line since training camp, but they had been waiting on the return of Point, who also missed most of camp while a new contract was negotiated.
Putting the trio together late in games helped the Lightning pull out a few wins last year.
Take the March 25 comeback win over the Bruins. Six minutes into the third period, after the Lightning cut its deficit to a goal, Cooper swapped Tyler Johnson for Stamkos mid shift. A few shifts later, Stamkos set up Kucherov for the tying goal. The Lightning went on to win 5-4 on a last-minute goal from Anthony Cirelli.
Stamkos pointed to that success while also cautioning that just putting skilled players together doesn’t automatically make a successful line. Sometimes what looks good on paper doesn’t translate to reality.
“The reason we did have success is because we were working hard late in games,” he said. “We have to have that same mentality from the beginning.”
Toronto coach Mike Babcock posed an interesting question before Thursday’s game for the three players who each tallied more than 40 goals last season.
“I’m not sure there’s enough puck to go around,” he said. “We can find out.”
There definitely was Thursday. Both Point goals and one Kucherov goal were at even strength. Stamkos and Kucherov also each landed a power-play goal.
The line combination requires Stamkos to move away from where he is most comfortable, though. He’s a natural center who has only rarely played wing. Point centers the line.
It never hurts to have another center on the ice. Offensively it doesn’t do a lot, but if Point gets hung up getting back into the defensive zone, Stamkos can pick up that responsibility.
The change requires a shift in instincts for Stamkos, though. He’s used to receiving the puck in certain places and is still adjusting to being on the outside.
“But … when you get a chance to play with a Point and a Kucherov,” Stamkos said, “it’s worth it.”
Contact Diana C. Nearhos at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow @dianacnearhos.
Lightning 4 1 2 7
Maple Leafs 3 0 0 3
First Period—1, Tampa Bay, Point 1 (Kucherov, Stamkos), 2:28. 2, Toronto, Johnsson 1 (Marner, Matthews), 4:19 (pp). 3, Toronto, Tavares 1 (Kapanen, Holl), 7:46. 4, Tampa Bay, Kucherov 2 (Hedman, Cirelli), 11:24 (pp). 5, Tampa Bay, Shattenkirk 3 (Johnson), 12:45. 6, Toronto, Matthews 6 (Muzzin, Nylander), 17:56. 7, Tampa Bay, Stamkos 3 (Point, Cirelli), 19:17 (pp). Penalties—Hedman, TB, (cross checking), 3:16 Spezza, TOR, (slashing), 9:42 Kapanen, TOR, (interference), 13:23 Petan, TOR, (holding), 18:27.
Second Period—8, Tampa Bay, Point 2 (Stamkos, Kucherov), 10:46. Penalties—None.
Third Period—9, Tampa Bay, Palat 2 (Sergachev, Cirelli), 3:56. 10, Tampa Bay, Kucherov 3 (Stamkos), 6:57. Penalties—Kucherov, TB, (hooking), 4:46.
Shots on Goal—Tampa Bay 14-10-9_33. Toronto 13-11-4_28. Power-play opportunities—Tampa Bay 2 of 3. Toronto 1 of 2. Goalies—Tampa Bay, Vasilevskiy 2-1-0 (28 shots-25 saves). Toronto, Hutchinson 0-0-1 (5-5), Andersen 2-2-0 (28-21). A—19,387 (18,819). T—2:24. Referees—Ghislain Hebert, Marc Joannette. Linesmen—Shandor Alphonso, Devin Berg.