I have — I admit with some chagrin — been looking for reasons to pick against the Lightning all year. Mostly because, as a wise blogger once wrote, this shit is hard. It’s hard enough to go back-to-back, in a salary-capped league where luck or injuries or a hot goalie can rule the day, and it’s exponentially harder to threepeat, something that hasn’t been done since the days since goalies had day jobs as milkmen and staying in shape meant smoking between periods rather than between shifts.
Tampa appeared to oblige my doubt, doing a bit of sleepwalking through the regular season, though in hindsight that looks like them doing the LeBron thing of conserving energy for the postseason, and being confident they could qualify at three-quarters speed. The next obstacle, after surviving Toronto in seven, was holding off a changing of the guard. No dynasty lasts forever, and the future of the East would appear to lie in younger teams like Florida and New York. Would that handoff occur this year? Absolutely not. The seasoned vets showed the starry-eyed new kids a thing or two, overcoming a two-game hiccup to steamroll both comers.
Stamkos is still Stamkos, Hedman is still Hedman, Kucherov is still Kucherov, Palat is still in the right place at the right time with a canniness that verges on clairvoyance, a reimagined third line is every bit as tough to play against as the cap -casualty all-world one it had to replace, Vasilevskiy is still the best in the world, and Jon Cooper, for all the arcane, unquantifiable wizardry that goes into coaching hockey, is still pushing the correct buttons. This is a team so like its past champion editions that there is seemingly little valid reason to pick against it. Except. Except the one glaringly missing name from this paragraph. Except that the Lightning have not had Brayden Point.
Well, about that. Point, a playmaking machine and elemental playoff force, could finally be back on the ice for tonight’s Game 1, after having not played since leaving early in Game 7 against Toronto with a lower-body injury. “If it’s not [tonight]”Cooper said,“ then we really anticipate Game 2. ”
Point’s role in the last two Lightning Cups really can’t be overstated. He scored 14 goals in 23 games in each, and, even with his abbreviated 2022 playoffs, he has the most goals of any NHL player over the last three postseasons. He’s done it with a lethal combination of being able to get to high-danger spots with or without the puck, the reflexes to finish, and the sangfroid to up his game under the brightest lights. The entire Lightning roster is now tested and tempered enough not to wilt in the big moments, but Point’s Undauntability stands out even among his teammates. There are two lenses through which to view his return from injury, and both refract well on Tampa. In the first, they’re back to something resembling full strength. That’s imposing enough. In the second, they have gone 9-2 in the postseason without him, and now they’re adding Brayden Point to that. Oh shit.
If there’s a caveat, it’s that it’s not clear how back to 100 percent Point is or will be. It may take him some time to ramp up, and there are indications he won’t be thrown immediately back onto the top line. At Tampa’s most recent practices he was centering Nick Paul and Ross Colton, and in that role he could provide some more scoring punch to a great two-way third line. If he does work his way back up to the top, the knock-on slotting-down of Stamkos and Cirelli would upgrade the entire lineup. The only sure thing is that if he can play, Cooper’s going to make sure he plays. “Brayden Point is an elite player in this League and he will play his minutes accordingly of how he’s responding,” Cooper said. “I wouldn’t classify that Pointer’s going to be sitting on the bench a whole lot. If he’s healthy, he’ll be out there. ”
A healthy Point and the depth his addition would provide could do wonders for the sort of grinding, relentless hockey the Lightning hope to play against the Avalanche. Tampa loves to cycle, using spacing and the threat of sniping to pick apart defenses, and relishes reducing the game to a series of puck battles, since they win those more often than not. Fresh legs and multiple scoring threats per line make their preferred game easier to execute. (Colorado, by contrast, favors a faster, north-south offense that creates its chances off rushes. It’ll be interesting to see how Tampa’s blue line – stacking, slot-clogging defense handles this. A thing to watch in this series is if play tends to be rush and counter-rush, or if the offenses are more viscous and deliberate. If it’s the latter, Tampa’s probably in good shape.)
So, Point’s absence is out as a potential reason to pick against the Lightning. And yet, they’re underdogs (though not overwhelmingly so). In the end, in this third straight Cup run, there is but one argument left a reasonable observer can use to make the case that Tampa’s time is over. That argument, though you’ll find dissenters, requires no reach: that Colorado is the better team, and it’s their time now. This Final is going to be good.