Lightning fans' long wait is over.
Brayden Point is ready to play.
Tampa Bay's talented centerman will be in the lineup when the Lightning begin the second portion of their season long-tying six-game road trip tonight against Toronto, head coach Jon Cooper confirmed.
Point missed Tampa Bay's first three games as he recovered from offseason hip surgery. After joining a line and being inserted onto the first power-play unit during two practice sessions this week - a clear sign he was ready - Point will get his first taste of game action since last season's Game 4 loss at Columbus in the playoffs nearly six months ago.
Video: Brayden Point on returning to Lineup
"It's exciting," Point said about his return. "Playing the first game of the year is always a big one."
During practice, Point centered the Lightning's top line with Steven Stamkos on his left and Nikita Kucherov to his right, the Bolts' putting all three 40-goal scorers from a season ago together as one unit. Earlier this week, Cooper said Point is a player that "drives the bus" for the Lightning. Assistant coach Todd Richards said Point plays the game so fast it forces his linemates to play faster, even skaters like Kucherov and Stamkos who are already fleet of foot.
How long that combination stays together remains to be seen. But for now, it looks like the Lightning are intent on putting their three most productive scorers together to form a line that would be among the cream of the crop in the National Hockey League.
"He's one of the best players in this league. Great two-way player, scoots around the ice effortlessly. He's got a great shot, great vision on the ice," Lightning defenseman Victor Hedman said of Point. "Obviously, had some great chemistry last year with Kuch and Stammer. Really looking forward to seeing those guys out there tonight."
Point's return comes at an opportune for the Lightning, who are reeling a bit after dropping both halves of a back-to-back set at Florida and Carolina over the weekend to drop to 1-1-1 on the season. The Caroling loss in particular was an ego-crushing setback, the Bolts producing just two shots over the final 40-plus minutes of the game and watching a 3-1 lead after one period of play evaporate in a 4-3 overtime defeat.
"You're going to have stinkers," Cooper said. "We didn't expect to have a stinker in game 3."
To that end, the Lightning conducting two longer-than-normal practices Tuesday and Wednesday, the session Tuesday going well over two hours. The Lightning addressed some of their mistakes from the Carolina loss, namely too many turnovers and penalties, and expect a bounce-back performance against a divisional rival in Toronto.
"If anything, after we have a tough game like that, to come on the road and play a really good team in Toronto, that's usually a best-case scenario of we'll have to play a much better game," Stamkos said. "…It's good for our group. We've had a couple days of good practices and watching video. We have to make some adjustments. We've talked about it. We'll look to play better tonight."
Having Point back will certainly help the Lightning put together a better performance too, although Point and his surgically-repaired hip will go into the fire against a talented Leafs team that plays the game just as fast as the Bolts.
"They're a good skating team," Point said. "It'll test the legs early."
Video: Hedman on matchup vs. Toronto
HEDMAN REACHES CAREER MILESTONE: Victor Hedman will become the first Tampa Bay Lightning defenseman in franchise history and fourth Lightning player overall to reach the 700-game milestone when he suits up in Toronto tonight. Hedman will join Vincent Lecavalier (1,037), Martin St. Louis (972) and Steven Stamkos (749) in the Bolts' 700-game club.
"Hopefully many more to come and hopefully I'll have a good one tonight," Hedman said of the career achievement."
Hedman was the second overall selection in the 2009 NHL Draft and has pretty much been a mainstay in the Lightning lineup ever since.
"That's amazing to me, 700 games, Victor Hedman. He still seems like a young guy, and he still is young," Cooper said. "It's amazing that he's been playing that well for so long. It's a tribute to him, keeps himself in shape. I've said this many times, when he's going our team's usually going. 700, good for him."