Brayden Point has been the Lightning’s best player for much of their first-round playoff series, pushing the pace, driving the net, battling for pucks along the boards and defending against the Maple Leafs’ top line.
But aside from a late power-play goal late in Game 2, he hadn’t been rewarded for his efforts.
So it was fitting that Point scored the biggest goal of the series so far, his putback with less than two minutes remaining in overtime lifting the Lightning to a 4-3 victory Thursday at Amalie Arena.
With the win, the Lightning kept their chances of a third straight Stanley Cup championship alive for at least another game.
Point’s goal was as dirty as they get, but it was a thing of beauty for the Lightning.
Point, who led all playoff scorers with 14 goals each of the past two postseasons, gets noticed primarily for his speed. But much of his value to the Lightning is found in his ability to get to the tough areas of the ice, battle for positioning and use his quick hands to score from tight spaces.
When Brandon Hagel collected a loose puck in the neutral zone after Auston Matthews took a spill and skated down the leftside boards, Point went to the net to try to open a lane for Alex Killorn. Hagel passed into the slot to Killorn, who one-timed a shot on net.
The puck landed in front of Point’s stick, and he pushed it between goaltender Jack Campbell’s legs as Michael Bunting dove in vain to try to keep the puck out of the net.
As the puck was crossing the goal line, Point was falling onto his back, emblematic of the workmanlike approach the Lightning took to their 4-3 win.
Tampa Bay battled from the start, jumping out to a two-goal lead on scores by Ondrej Palat and Anthony Cirelli, then withstood a second-period surge in which Toronto scored three goals, including two in the final 34 seconds of the period, before tying the game on Nikita Kucherov’s 5-on-3 power-play goal in the third.
The Lightning bent but didn’t break in the extra period, and it might have been just enough to save their season.
Here is how we graded the rest of the Lightning’s performance in Game 6:
It hasn’t been the ideal series for Lightning goaltender Andrei Vasilevskiy, who has allowed 21 goals over six games, while his save percentage (.885) and goals-against average (3.37) are among the least impressive of his seven playoff seasons.
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But while the high number of penalties called and goals scored have skewed numbers across the league this postseason, one thing is as certain as ever.
Vasilevskiy shows up when it matters most and is at his best in the game’s biggest moments.
With the Maple Leafs pressuring in the Lightning end and nearly doubling Tampa Bay’s shot total in overtime, Vasilevskiy stopped all nine Toronto shots in the period to give the Bolts a chance to win.
He finished with 30 saves on 33 shots to improve to 17-0 with a 1.47 GAA, .942 save percentage and five shutouts over the past three postseasons in games immediately following a loss.
Those are the numbers that matter.
Palat’s contributions always have flown under the radar, and with him due to become a free agent after the season, it has been easy for people to convince themselves that he is no longer as important to the Lightning’s success as he has been in the past.
But as the series has gone on, Palat has become one of Tampa Bay’s better players.
Skating on the top line with Steven Stamkos and Kucherov, Palat plays a strong two-way game and does the little things that allow his linemates to shine. In fact, there might not be a player on the Lightning roster who is better at gaining possession of the puck and giving his team the opportunity to go on offense.
He can score, too. Palat’s first-period goal Thursday was his third in the past four games and tied him with Ross Colton for most on the Lightning this postseason.
He played physical throughout, drawing a tripping penalty against Morgan Rielly and driving defenseman Mark Giordano hard into the boards, finishing with four shots on goal, four hits and a blocked shot in 19:39.
Guessing Toronto noticed.
Fair is fair
The Lightning have been criticized throughout the series for mental mistakes that led to costly delay of game, too many men on the ice and careless stick penalties. And rightly so.
But it was mistakes by the Maple Leafs that played a pivotal role in Game 6.
With the teams locked in a scoreless tie late in the first period, Alex Kerfoot made a blind, backwards pass from the neutral zone back into his own zone. Palat skated onto the puck and fired a shot from the right circle that beat Campbell low on the stick side.
Then, after the Leafs came back to take a 3-2 lead, David Kampf and Kerfoot took high-sticking penalties, including one deep in the offensive zone, to give the Lightning a two-man advantage for 1:45, resulting in Kucherov’s tying goal.
If the Leafs avoid even one of those mistakes, they’re likely celebrating their first series victory since 2004.
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