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Injury behind him, Lightning’s Brayden Point rounds into regular-season form

Feeling healthy again, the star center is looking forward to the final two preseason games to get ready.
Lightning center Brayden Point (21) races Predators defenseman Mattias Ekholm (14) to the puck during a preseason game Sept. 29 in Nashville, Tennessee.
Lightning center Brayden Point (21) races Predators defenseman Mattias Ekholm (14) to the puck during a preseason game Sept. 29 in Nashville, Tennessee. [ MARK HUMPHREY | AP ]
Published Oct. 5|Updated Oct. 7

BRANDON — Early in training camp, Brayden Point fell into the boards during practice, a sight eerily similar to the play in which the Lightning center suffered a torn right quad muscle during Game 7 of last season’s first-round playoff series against the Maple Leafs.

For a moment, time stood still for coach Jon Cooper, who admittedly couldn’t help but hold his breath.

“It just brings back those flashes, and you go over there, and I’m like, ‘Are you OK?’ " Cooper said. “And he’s looking at me like, ‘What are you talking about? Because I didn’t even think about it.’ So I’m probably more worried about it than he is.”

Anytime a star player is returning from injury, there’s caution, and Point is a colossal part of the Lightning’s future as the first year of his eight-year, $76 million contract extension kicks in this season.

All signs say that Point is healthy again. He was conservative with his return, taking extra time in the offseason to ensure that his injury had healed. He’s buzzing around the ice in practice again, and it doesn’t appear that anything is holding him back.

The biggest question seems to be which line he will center. He has skated on the top line with Steven Stamkos and Nikita Kucherov, and he also has been matched with Alex Killorn and Brandon Hagel on the second line.

Lightning center Brayden Point (21) stretches while down on the ice during training camp in September at TGH Ice Plex in Brandon.
Lightning center Brayden Point (21) stretches while down on the ice during training camp in September at TGH Ice Plex in Brandon. [ DIRK SHADD | Times ]

Like most Lightning regulars, Point enters the final week before the start of the regular season having played just one preseason game. The final two exhibitions, against the Panthers tonight in Sunrise and Saturday at Amalie Arena, might be even more important to Point in regaining his form.

“It all happens in the exhibition games,” Cooper said. “He hadn’t played the game really healthy since Toronto, so just it’s good to see that he feels good in all aspects. Now it’s just about him getting his timing back.

“But are there things going on in his head? Maybe, maybe not. He just had a different injury than (most). You don’t see his injury happen as much, so hopefully we don’t see it again.”

Point said his first preseason game, Sept. 29 against Nashville, which played a physical game, was “a little rough” but called it a big step. The Lightning has ramped up the intensity in their practices in terms of hitting and length — the past two practices were the longest of camp — but practice can’t replicate the feel of games.

“That’s one of the things that is good about the exhibition is you kind of do get that feel, because obviously in practice guys aren’t trying to run their own guys,” Point said. “So to feel that pressure and to kind of understand the time and space again is really important.

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“I’m just feeling better every day. It was good to get in that game and kind of realize what you think the speed (of a game) is. You know it’s not quite regular-season speed, but still it’s good to kind of feel that again. It’s been a long time for me to feel that.”

Lightning center Brayden Point, left, skates alongside defenseman Victor Hedman, right, during training camp in September in Brandon.
Lightning center Brayden Point, left, skates alongside defenseman Victor Hedman, right, during training camp in September in Brandon. [ DIRK SHADD | Times ]

After being injured, Point spent most of the Eastern Conference final against the Rangers testing his leg and trying to manage his quad in order to get back into games. He tried to play in the first two games of the Stanley Cup final against the Avalanche but had to compensate too much and wasn’t the player he needed to be. He sat out the remainder of the series, won by the Avalanche in six games.

Point, 26, said the final two preseason games will be important in helping him get back to feeling like the dynamic player he has been throughout his career.

“I think it’s just getting comfortable with the puck again, trusting my legs again,” said Point, entering his seventh NHL season. “It’s tough when you’ve got an injury to kind of change your style of play.

“I think just trying to get back to my game and having that confidence with the puck is something I’m working on and something I’m trying to do in practice, and hopefully it continues in these next two exhibition games.”

Contact Eduardo A. Encina at eencina@tampabay.com. Follow @EddieintheYard.

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