The Lightning are better when Brayden Point is in the lineup.
He was back as their top center when Game 4 of the Eastern Conference final against the Islanders started Sunday and made an immediate impact.
Point returned after missing Game 3 with an injury and was in on two of the Lightning’s goals, assisting Ondrej Palat in the second period and then scoring in the third as Tampa Bay won 4-1 at Edmonton to move one win from the Stanley Cup final.
The Lightning can earn a Cup final spot in Game 5 on Tuesday.
“(Point) was all over it,” coach Jon Cooper said. “He was in on everything and setting up goals, scoring goals, and he’s a big part of our team.”
Said Palat, who also assisted on Point’s goal: “He has been our best player, and he’s a huge part of our team. When he’s on the ice, he’s playing great. We’re very happy he could play (Sunday).”
But his status for Game 5 was thrown into question late in the game.
He took a hit from Islanders defenseman Adam Pelech in the third period and clearly favored his right leg as he hurried to the bench. He spoke with head athletic trainer Tom Mulligan and then sat out for the final eight minutes.
The hit wasn’t especially hard, but he took the contact to his hip/groin area with one leg extended in front of the other midstride. Point appeared to have tweaked his hamstring or hip when he left Game 2 with the problem that cost him Game 3.
Asked about Point’s health after Game 4, Cooper said the Lightning have to “manage” Point. As to whether Point would be able to play Tuesday, Cooper said, “Oh, gosh, that game’s two days away. So let’s give us a breath here, and we’ll circle back come game time in two days.”
Point and linemates Palat and Nikita Kucherov combined for the goal that gave the Lightning a 2-1 lead at 11:54 of the second period, 12 seconds after forward Blake Coleman had tied the score at 1. That’s a franchise record for the fastest two goals in a postseason game. The previous record was 15, set in Game 3 of this year’s conference semifinal against the Bruins, a 7-1 win.
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In the third period Sunday, Point put the Lightning up 3-1. He beat fellow speedy center Mathew Barzal to the post and outmaneuvered him for the inside position. Goalie Semyon Varlamov made the first save, so Point took another whack at the puck to put it in.
The Lightning knew they’d be getting their most dynamic player back well before they shared the news with anyone else. When Cooper was asked Sunday morning, he said, “We’ll … see in a couple of hours.”
The Lightning had assistant equipment manager Jason Berger put towels over the sticks after he set them up on the bench before the game so the Islanders couldn’t see whose were lined up. Cameras for Canada’s Sportsnet TV network caught Point’s name on a couple before the towel was in place.
The questions will continue because Point couldn’t play the whole game.
Contact Diana C. Nearhos at email@example.com. Follow @dianacnearhos
First Period—None. Penalties—Pelech, NYI (Tripping), 8:13; Gourde, TB (Roughing), 20:00; Clutterbuck, NYI (Roughing), 20:00; Martin, NYI (Unsportsmanlike Conduct), 20:00.
Second Period—1, N.Y. Islanders, Nelson 9 (Bailey), 11:27. 2, Tampa Bay, Coleman 4 (Vasilevskiy, Gourde), 11:42. 3, Tampa Bay, Palat 8 (Kucherov, Point), 11:54. Penalties—McDonagh, TB (Holding), 6:36; Shattenkirk, TB (Delay of Game), 13:06; Barzal, NYI (Holding Stick), 14:49.
Third Period—4, Tampa Bay, Point 9 (Palat, Kucherov), 3:33. 5, Tampa Bay, Maroon 1 (Gourde, Paquette), 17:36 (en). Penalties—Palat, TB (Hooking), 13:52.
Shots on Goal—Tampa Bay 11-14-11_36. N.Y. Islanders 5-12-10_27. Power-play opportunities—Tampa Bay 0 of 3; N.Y. Islanders 0 of 3. Goalies—Tampa Bay, Vasilevskiy 13-4-0 (27 shots-26 saves). N.Y. Islanders, Varlamov 10-4-2 (35-32). T—2:25. Referees—Francis Charron, Wes McCauley. Linesmen—Greg Devorski, Matt MacPherson.