TAMPA — Brayden Point could feel the tension in Amalie Arena. The Lightning were playing with their season on the line in overtime Thursday night, their margin for error as paper thin as ever.
“You’re kind of just on the edge of your seat just like the fans are,” Point said. “You just want to set the next line up better than when you left it.”
Championship teams thrive in these “season-on-the-brink” moments. But for as much as this Lightning team accomplished in winning back-to-back Stanley Cups, there were few pressure-filled moments like this one the past two postseasons.
Facing elimination in Game 6 of their first-round playoff series against the Maple Leafs on Thursday, the Lightning had to dig deep, first to force overtime after letting another early two-goal lead slip away, then to emerge victorious while battling tired legs.
And it was Point, the speedy, dynamic scorer, who extended Tampa Bay’s season — and hopes for a three-peat — with a greasy goal off a rebound in front of the net with 1:56 remaining in overtime to send the Lightning to a 4-3 win.
The winner-take-all Game 7 is Saturday night at Toronto’s Scotiabank Arena.
“No surprise with ‘Pointer,’ " Lightning captain Steven Stamkos said. “This is his time of the year. You never know what shots are going to go in the net in overtime. … It’s do or die for us, anyway, so just leave it all out there.”
Point’s only shot on goal of the night was the most important.
Toronto Hart Trophy finalist Auston Matthews stumbled at the red line, and Tampa Bay forward Brandon Hagel took the puck, skated up the ice and fed forward Alex Killorn in front of the Maple Leafs’ net. Killorn’s shot was denied by goalie Jack Campbell, but Point was there for the rebound and sent the puck under the right pad of Campbell.
“No one really cares about how the first five games (of the series) were now,” Stamkos said. “(Thursday) was the night, and (Point) had that moment that gives us a chance to go to Game 7.
“Game 7s, as they say, flip a coin. You never know what’s going to happen. So he gave us a chance with that big goal. It’s about wins this time of the year, and this group has proved that we don’t care how it gets done. We just want to get it done. (Point) had a huge goal to give us this one more chance to have a crack here.”
Point has scored big goals in the postseason, and no one scored more than his 28 over the previous two postseasons. But, Point said, few things prepare a player for overtime with the season on the line.
“You can kind of draw on past experiences maybe, but you’re just playing, trying everything you can to not let (the other team) score,” Point said. “If you get one (goal), that’s great, but I think (you’re) just focusing in on trying to limit their chances defensively.”
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The statistics and the score sheet won’t show it, but Point has probably had the best series of any Lightning player. He has anchored a line with Killorn and Anthony Cirelli that has done a great job defensively neutralizing the Maple Leafs’ dynamic duo of Matthews and Mitch Marner, especially at home, where the Lightning have the last line change.
“That’s not an easy task,” Stamkos said of defending Matthews and Marner. “Two world-class players. Every time they have the puck, you have be aware of them on the ice. And it’s hard minutes when you’re going against those guys. Maybe that takes away some of the energy in the offensive zone, but they haven’t said a word. They’ve gone out over the bench every time those guys have been on the ice and they’ve been called.
“You want those guys on your team that are willing to do whatever to win.”
Point was frustrated earlier in the game. With the Lightning leading 2-0 midway through the second period, he lost a faceoff with Matthews in the Lightning zone, then shadowed Matthews to the front of the net. He had position on Matthews, but Point missed trying to block defenseman Mark Giordano’s puck on net, allowing Matthews to make a redirection past Andrei Vasilevskiy to cut the lead to 2-1.
The Lightning won the special teams battle, netting a 4-on-4 goal from Ondrej Palat in the first period. Cirelli’s shorthanded goal in the second gave the Lightning the 2-0 lead.
But the Lightning allowed two goals in the final minute of the second period and went into the intermission down 3-2.
“It was nice to have 18 minutes to take a breath,” coach Jon Cooper said.
That break proved to be a defining moment for the Lightning.
“We talked about sacrificing,” Stamkos said. “We talked about doing the right things out there. It’s tough. Your body’s going through a lot, especially in an elimination game where our backs are against the wall and guys are trying to leave it all on the ice. So I thought we did that.”
Nikita Kucherov’s 5-on-3 goal midway through the third period after two Toronto high-sticking penalties sent the game to overtime.
Contact Eduardo A. Encina at email@example.com. Follow @EddieintheYard.
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