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Lightning’s Brayden Point thrives in big games

The center scored two overtime goals in the first-round series, and surprised exactly no one in doing so.
Lightning center Brayden Point scored overtime goals to win Games 1 and 5.
Lightning center Brayden Point scored overtime goals to win Games 1 and 5. [ COLE BURSTON | The Canadian Press via AP ]
Published Aug. 22, 2020
Updated Aug. 23, 2020

Brayden Point has acquired a couple of new nicknames from the Lightning’s broadcast team of Rick Peckham and Brian Engblom: “Big Game Brayden” and “Mr. Clutch.” Host and rink reporter Paul Kennedy added “Mr. August.”

Whichever one you prefer, the center has earned them.

Point has also earned the status of superstar, as granted by defenseman Victor Hedman. And Hedman would know. He has been one of the league’s top defensemen for years.

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“He’s making big-time plays at key moments in games,” Hedman said. “And that’s what defines a superstar in this league. Brayden’s really turned into that.”

Point called his goal in the fifth overtime of Game 1 against the Blue Jackets in their first-round playoff series this year the biggest of his life. Coach Jon Cooper upped the ante, calling that and Point’s overtime goal in Game 5 to win the series two of the biggest in franchise history.

“The big thing for me is what he does in the biggest moments of the game,” Cooper said. “He’s an extremely valuable player on this team. It’s up to the player, in those situations, to make himself better. And he’s done that.”

Cooper also talked about Point’s play the last time the Lightning met the Bruins in the playoffs before tonight’s start of their Eastern Conference semifinal. He credited Point with elevating his game to help the Lightning beat Boston 4-1 in the same round two years ago.

In that series, Cooper put Point out against the Bruins’ top line, specifically against center Patrice Bergeron. Point was minus-5 after the first period of Game 2 — the Bruins won Game 1 6-2, and Game 2 was 1-1 after one — and Cooper pulled him aside. The coach told Point he wouldn’t pull him out of the matchup, that he had to get out of the minus-5 on his own.

Point finished Game 2, a 4-2 Lighting win, with a goal and three assists.

He finished the series plus-2, with seven points.

“It was unreal,” Cooper said. “That’s what he just does.”

Point rises to the big moments. He pushes himself to be the best he can, but he is relaxed while doing so. At one point during this year’s first round, forward Alex Killorn joked that Point hadn’t even retaped his sticks since Game 1.

Related: Did you know these fast facts about the eight remaining teams in the Stanley Cup playoffs?

Killorn didn’t mean it as a superstitious thing, just that Point couldn’t be bothered. This is a guy who grew long hair and a bushy beard not because he didn’t want to disrupt a streak but because it seemed like more effort to cut and trim it.

Asked if that helps him stay calm in big moments, Point shrugged. He does that when asked to give himself credit.

That’s part of why Point’s goal celebrations don’t tend to be huge, and why his emphatic fist pumps after the two overtime goals in this year’s first round stand out. He jumped around more after the first one — ending the fourth-longest game in NHL history will do that to a person — but the double underarm pump in Game 5 demonstrated what that series-clinching goal meant, even if he didn’t say much about it afterward.

“It was just a good read by (Nikita Kucherov),” Point said after the game. “He steals the puck, and he’s a guy who sees the ice so well. He spotted me right away in front of the net there, and I was able to make a backhand move on (Columbus goalie Joonas Korpisalo).”

Though factually accurate, Point undersold himself on the goal. He played his backhand like few can. It looked like he was flipping the puck on the net, but Point aimed the shot specifically to the top corner, where the goaltender couldn’t reach it.

“That’s precision at its finest,” Engblom said. “That was not like a, ‘Phew, I pulled it off.’ "

Engblom has seen Point’s shot develop over his four years in the league. Point has gone from looking shocked after beautiful chances were stopped to having the confidence to shoot to score, versus just putting the puck on the net.

“A lot of guys would have shot that quickly,” assistant coach Jeff Halpern said of Point’s Game 5 overtime goal against the Blue Jackets, referring to Point being open in the slot. “Just the fact that he caught it and pulled it to his backhand to go around the goalie. He has a lot of ways to move the puck and even the way he shoots it. It’s a very accurate shot, and he gets it off quick at different angles.”

Halpern referred to Point not being too quick to set up the shot but also that the puck comes off his stick quickly once he starts the shooting motion, not giving the goalie time to react.

Big Game Brayden, indeed.

Contact Diana C. Nearhos at dnearhos@tampabay.com. Follow @dianacnearhos.