TAMPA — It might have been the prettiest play of the Lightning’s first-round playoff series win over the Panthers, and the type that Tampa Bay fans have grown accustomed to seeing.
The Lighting were clinging to a two-goal lead inside of six minutes left in Wednesday night’s Game 6, certainly not a safe cushion given the back-and-forth nature of the series.
Nikita Kucherov took a bank pass off the far boards from Erik Cernak and with two Panthers in front of him, wheeled back around the left circle. All a part of the plan, Kucherov waited as Brayden Point sped toward the net, then backhanded a perfect pass through two Florida skaters right onto Point’s stick as he charged to the left hash.
Point then put on a clinic in power skating that few can match. In one move, he tucked the puck away from MacKenzie Weegar and turned the corner on him, leaving the Panthers’ top defenseman flat-footed and flailing.
With Weegar beaten, Point then schooled Florida rookie goalkeeper Spencer Knight, cutting in front of him through a poke check and across the crease, waiting until Knight was splayed across the net before tucking the puck into the net inside the near post.
That goal all but sealed the Lightning’s 4-0 series-clinching Game 6 victory, and it offered another reminder of how Kucherov and Point work so well together.
“There’s an interesting kind of synergy between Point and Kucherov,” said NHL Network studio analyst Stu Grimson, who played 14 seasons in the NHL. “They really bring out the best in one another. I continue to believe that there’s no skater more important to Tampa than Brayden Point. And having said that, the one guy in that organization that really reads Point well, plays off of Point exceptionally well and is a great fit for Point is Kucherov.
“They’re a really tough tandem to curtail.”
Two days earlier, the Panthers found a way to stop the pair. Point had zero shots on goal and just two shot attempts; Kucherov had two of the Lightning’s best looks on Knight, but was turned away. Florida took away the space that allows Kucherov to be creative and make plays, and Point the ability to use his speed and skill to find the back of the net.
But in Game 6, Point scored his third goal of the series that was a result of a Kucherov primary assist. Two others looked very similar, both coming on the power play, with Kucherov drawing attention from the circle, slowing down the play and surveying the scene before feeding Point the puck in front of the net.
Point’s third-period Game 1 goal from Kucherov tied the score in the Lightning’s 5-4 win. The two found each other again in Game 3 for the fourth of five second-period goals.
“They’re elite thinkers and they play at a really high pace,” Lightning coach Jon Cooper said. “So when you have that, it’s almost like they know where each other is going before the other guy does and then they communicate. They’ve played together for a while. They talk about where they want each other on the ice, but when you can make those high-skill plays at such an incredible rate of speed, they can make the game look easy at times, and we’ve seen signs of that in this series and a ton of it in last year’s playoffs.”
Because Kucherov missed the entire regular season recovering from hip surgery, the first-round playoff series was the first time the duo has played together since last postseason. And it’s almost like they never missed a beat since then. During the Stanley Cup run last year, Kucherov had the primary assist on six of Point’s team-high 14 postseason goals.
“I think it has a lot to do with just the way they process the game cognitively,” Grimsom said. “They’re like-minded in that respect. They have very, very high-end skill sets and a great expectation for how to find one another, they know how to make themselves available to one another. And they can improvise on the spot, they’re two of the most resourceful players in the game, and you know that’s not to be understated.”
• • •
Sign up for Lightning Strikes, a weekly newsletter from Bolts beat writer Eduardo A. Encina that brings you closer to the ice.