TAMPA — The Lightning will be a lesser team if Brayden Point does not skate in the second round of the playoffs, but that does not necessarily mean they have a lesser chance of surviving against Florida.
Sounds silly, right? Point has led the NHL in postseason goals the past two seasons. Of course, his absence will make the Lightning a little slower and a lot less potent offensively. There is no rational argument for Tampa Bay’s fortunes to increase without Point in the lineup.
Except, maybe, for this:
The Lightning are at their best when facing adversity. We have witnessed it series after series. They won the 2020 Stanley Cup with captain Steven Stamkos reduced to playing cheerleader 99 percent of the postseason. They have willed themselves into becoming the greatest bounce-back team in NHL history by following every single loss with a victory in the past two-plus postseasons.
And then, with the season on the line in Game 7 on Saturday night in Toronto, they played their best game of the series once Point went into the wall at the end of the first period.
Think about what coach Jon Cooper said in Toronto after that game. He praised Nick Paul, but didn’t give him sole credit for the victory. He said nice things, as always, about Andrei Vasilevskiy, but did not suggest Tampa Bay’s goaltender stole that victory.
No, the first thing Cooper cited was the team’s response to Point’s departure.
“Adversity rears its head in so many different ways and, sometimes, an urgency that’s already there, kicks into gear,” Cooper said in Toronto. “When Pointer got hurt, it seemed to lock the entire team in. And I don’t think we looked back after that.
“I don’t think you (could do) what we’ve done the last couple of years unless you have players who can respond the way they did. And they have done it time and time again. I shouldn’t be surprised.”
You get the feeling that this is where Cooper excels as a coach. Others can worry about the X’s and O’s, but Cooper is in charge of hearts and souls. He pushes buttons and gets responses.
He got the team’s offensive stars to buy into a more defensive-oriented style that led to the 2020 Cup and then convinced players that their legacies would grow exponentially with back-to-back titles.
That sense of shared purpose is what the Lightning seemed to lack for much of this season. They were talented enough to win most games, but they didn’t seem to have the attention to detail.
Even when the playoffs began, they came out flat in Game 1 against Toronto. Cooper called them out after two early losses for basically handing games over to the Maple Leafs.
It seemed to take the danger of elimination in Game 6 to get their attention, then Point’s departure in Game 7 to awaken the passion of past playoff performances.
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“The last two games,” Vasilevskiy said. “I thought we played like a Lightning playoff team.”
This is the crux of the Lightning story. They were a team of stars in 2019 but they didn’t find postseason success until they bought into the idea of playing together as a unit.
They went from high-scoring to tight-checking, and that was more of a mindset than a strategy. Once the stars bought into that system, everyone else fell in line.
Even with their problems early in the Toronto series, the final numbers told the difference in their approaches. Toronto was dependent on its stars. The Leafs got four goals from Auston Matthews and three each from William Nylander and John Tavares, along with eight points from Mitch Marner. When they were shut down in the final two games, Toronto did not have an answer.
Meanwhile, neither Point, Stamkos nor Nikita Kucherov scored more than two goals in the series. Instead, some of the biggest goals for Tampa Bay were scored by Paul, Anthony Cirelli and Ondrej Palat. It was Yanni Gourde who scored the game-winner in a 1-0 Game 7 win against the Islanders in 2021, and it was Ross Colton who got the lone goal in the Cup clincher against Montreal.
The larger picture is that the Lightning are a team of stars who win with grinders and journeymen.
Point may be missing in the Florida series, and that will undoubtedly hurt. But the Lightning have shown a knack for picking their game up when faced with difficult circumstances.
“Every year is different, teams are different,” Cooper said on Monday. “Yes, we have a common core, but their will to win hasn’t changed. And their gamesmanship at the biggest moments hasn’t changed and it served us well in that last series.”
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