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Same assignment, different challenge for Point line

The Bolts will ask Point, Palat and Johnson to shut down Washington's top offensive line

by Bryan Burns / TampaBayLightning.com

In Tampa Bay's 4-1 Second Round victory over the Boston Bruins, the Lightning line centered by Brayden Point and flanked by Ondrej Palat and Tyler Johnson was tasked with shutting down the Bruins top scoring line, the David Pastrnak, Patrice Bergeron, Brad Marchand line.

After a shaky outing in Game 1 in which it allowed four of Boston's six goals and surrendered 11 of the Bruins' 17 total points from the game, the Point line rebounded in dominating fashion. They effectively took the Bergeron line out of the series from Game 3 on by not allowing one of the NHL's top trios to score a five-on-five goal over the final three games and were able to do some damage of their own offensively.

The Point's line rally against the Bergeron line, in effect, sparked the Bolts' rally from a game down against the Bruins.

Now, with the Lightning in the Eastern Conference Final for the third time in four seasons, the Point line will likely once again get the assignment of taking on the Washington Capitals' top offensive line and eliminating them from the series.

But the combo of Alex Ovechkin, Evgeny Kuznetsov and the recently-reinstated Tom Wilson presents a different challenge than the one the Point line faced against Boston.

Video: Point | Pregame ECF Game 1

Ovechkin is as dynamic as any player in the NHL, possesses a world-class shot and is really a NFL linebacker on skates with his 6-foot-3, 235-pound frame. Ovechkin enters the Eastern Conference Final leading Washington for goals (8) and scoring (15 pts.). He ranks tied for eighth in the League for playoff scoring.

"You've got to watch him, where he is on the ice at all times," Point said. "Definitely some challenges."

Kuznetsov has been a point producer for the Capitals in these playoffs, ranking second only to Ovechkin on the Caps for scoring with seven goals and seven assists. He netted the overtime game-winner in Game 6 of the Second Round over Pittsburgh for probably the most cathartic goal in Capitals history, the Caps struggles in the playoffs against the Penguins well documented.

And Wilson returns to the Washington lineup and likely back to his role on the top line after missing Games 4-6 of the Pittsburgh series for an illegal check to the head that broke the jaw of the Penguins' Zach Aston-Reese. Wilson is as physical a player as the Lightning will face this postseason and can contribute offensively as well. He has two goals and five assists in nine 2018 playoff games.

Video: Johnson | Pregame ECF Game 1

"He plays physical. He finishes a lot of checks. He's got speed and skill too," Point said. "I think him and Ovechkin and Kuznetsov are big bodies and they all finish checks. It's a tough line for sure."

Like it was against the Bergeron line, the key for Point and his crew against the Kuznetsov line will be to hound them early, harass them into coughing up the puck and give them no room to create offensively. With the size of that Caps' trio, however, the task will be easier said than done.

"They're a little bit similar [to the Bergeron line] in the way that they have a lot of skill and can make some plays," Johnson said. "Obviously, having Ovi with the best shot in the league, it's a tough guy to match up against. Definitely have to take away the time and space, try to make things a little bit tougher for them. If that's (our job), then we have to try to do a good job of that."

No matter the line on the other side of the ice, Lightning head coach Jon Cooper has full confidence his shut-down trio can be just that for the Bolts. And Tampa Bay's other three lines are no slouch themselves when it comes to defensively responsibility.

"Checking is checking regardless who you play against," Cooper said. "There are some players I think that can deal with it a little better than others. I think it's a little bit of a mentality. The one thing, I think, Point, Palat, Johnson, those guys, the one thing they had to get out of their head was they had to outscore the other line. The big thing is don't let them score, and then whatever happens after that happens. It's weird how it turned out that's kind of how it went for them, and they eventually started to score. But, it's just about checking and having that mentality of that's what I'm going to do. The thing that was hard about the Bergeron line is, they understand that they're going to be checked. They're a checking line themselves. That's why I thought it was kind of a little bit of a chess match between those two lines. Fortunately for us, we were able to score a few of those against them. To me, it's thriving in your role and the assignment you've been given and regardless of if it's against Bergeron, Ovechkin, Kuznetsov or whoever it is, it's a tough job and it's not the most glamorous. But I think the best guys that do it really embrace it, and that's what they've done."

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