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Brayden Point center of attention for Lightning

Rookie stepping up to shore up middle, fuel Tampa Bay's playoff push

by Dan Rosen @drosennhl / Senior Writer

NEW YORK -- Tampa Bay Lightning coach Jon Cooper didn't really have another option. He didn't feel he needed one anyway. That's how impressed he has been with rookie center Brayden Point.

Cooper lost the second of his top two centers when Tyler Johnson sustained a lower-body injury against the Minnesota Wild last Thursday. Steven Stamkos, the unquestioned No. 1 center in Tampa Bay, has been out since Nov. 17, recovering from knee surgery.

In addition, the Lightning already traded Valtteri Filppula to the Philadelphia Flyers.

"There was no pause at all," Cooper said.

Point, a longshot to make the Lightning when training camp began and a bottom-six right wing on the depth chart coming out of camp, all of a sudden was Tampa Bay's new No. 1 center, meaning the toughest matchups, the important faceoffs, the accountability of playing 20 or more minutes.

"Pointer is ready for that stage," Cooper said.

He has looked the part so far, after celebrating his 21st birthday Monday.

Point has three goals in his past two games, each arguably the two biggest wins of the season for the Lightning. He scored a game-tying goal and the game-winning goal in a 3-2 win at the New York Rangers on Monday, and scored the Lightning's only regulation goal in a 2-1 overtime win at the Ottawa Senators on Tuesday.

He played 21:57 against the Senators, 21:49 against the Rangers and a season-high 22:11 in a 3-2 win against the Florida Panthers on Saturday, his first game as the No. 1 center.

Tampa Bay has won four in a row, is 5-0-1 in its past six games and 12-2-3 in its past 17. Point has 10 points (seven goals, three assists) in those 17 games.

Video: TBL@OTT: Point quickly adjusts to net a rebound

The Lightning are tied in points with the New York Islanders for the second wild card into the Stanley Cup Playoffs from the Eastern Conference. They play another critical game against the Toronto Maple Leafs, who are one point behind the Islanders and Lightning, at Amalie Arena on Thursday (7:30 p.m. ET; SUN, SNO, NHL.TV).

Johnson's status is uncertain. Point's is not. He will be there against Toronto, likely on the top line between Ondrej Palat and Nikita Kucherov. He will be a difficult matchup for whoever Maple Leafs coach Mike Babcock wants to put out against him.

"It's more minutes and it's more responsibility for sure," Point said, "and I'm just trying to make the most of it."

That was the message Point got in the offseason from his junior coach, Tim Hunter, of Moose Jaw of the Western Hockey League.

Point scored 175 points (73 goals, 102 assists) in 108 games over his final two WHL seasons under Hunter, who compared Point's ability to come out of the corner with the puck to Theo Fleury, and his practice habits, most notably his speed, to Patrick Marleau.

"I told Pointer going to camp, 'Go to make the team because you never know what's going to happen,'" Hunter said. "I said, 'With salary cap, with injuries, there's a window and don't be afraid to put yourself through it and take advantage. Don't go thinking you're going to go to Syracuse [of the American Hockey League]. No, go to make the Tampa Bay Lightning and they'll notice you.'

"He sure did that."

Point impressed Cooper and the Lightning first with his work ethic, a must-have quality for anybody to thrive in the NHL, let alone third-round picks (No. 79 in the 2014 NHL Draft) who are 5-foot-10 and 166 pounds.

Video: TBL@NYR: Point finishes for second goal on birthday

"You've got to have a will and he does," Cooper said. "Everything else, he just works at his game and this is where he is."

Point worked at his skating as a junior player with renowned skating consultant Barb Underhill. She had him working on ankle flexibility to help him in tighter areas, like the corners.

"The biggest thing he has is his maneuverability and his agility with the puck in tight quarters, going into the corner full speed, turning on a dime and coming out of the corner still going full speed," Hunter said. "He did things in junior hockey that were mind-blowing. I would see him go into the corner and I'm thinking, 'OK, he's going to get smashed into the boards and there will be no puck coming out of the corner.' Well, he'd go in, spin around, come out with the puck and the defensemen were like, 'Where did this guy go?'

"You watch a good junior like Pointer play against average junior players, it's quite a spectacle."

But even Hunter didn't envision Point being an impact player in Tampa Bay this season.

"We thought he'd go to Syracuse, spend some time there," Hunter said.

He made the Lightning, he was a right wing on the third line with Filppula.

"So I said to Stacy Roest, the development coach for Tampa, 'I sure hope he gets a chance at some point to play at center,'" Hunter said. "I said, 'If you can get him in the middle at some point I think you'll really see the benefit, the real kind of player he is.'

"And, wow, it's fun to see him in the middle of the ice for sure."

Point got his chance to play center because of Stamkos' injury. Now he's the Lightning's No. 1 center, at least for the time being.

With Stamkos and Johnson on the mend, there's a chance Point could bump down to No. 3 if Tampa Bay makes the playoffs. If they do, Point's impact will be a major reason why.

"I don't know if he has the high end skill that a Stamkos has, but he's definitely a No. 2 center in the NHL," Hunter said. "Eventually he'll be as good as Tyler Johnson."

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