Lightning look to play long enough to get Brayden Point back

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TAMPA — Steven Stamkos knows what it’s like having to watch while teammates chase greatness.

“The worst feeling as an athlete is not being able to perform, especially at this time of the year,” said Stamkos, who missed all but 2 minutes, 47 seconds of the Lightning’s 2020 run to the first of back-to-back Stanley Cup championships with a core muscle injury.

Center Brayden Point was injured in Game 7 of this year’s first-round series against the Maple Leafs and remains out. Point, who led the league with 28 goals over the past two postseasons, was the Lightning’s top two-way performer against Toronto before his injury, neutralizing 60-goal scorer Auston Matthews and scoring the deciding goal in a must-win Game 6.

Late in the first period of Game 7, Point was chasing the puck on the forecheck. As he turned toward the boards, he lost an edge and his right leg twisted awkwardly under his body. He was in tremendous pain as he held his upper leg. He struggled to get to the bench, and he couldn’t get any power from his legs without pain when he tried to return in the following period. The team is calling it a lower-body injury.

Almost two weeks later, Point doesn’t appear close to a return. Coach Jon Cooper initially said Point was day-to-day but has since backed away from that assessment. Point is aiming to return — teammates say he’s working out — but he has yet to resume skating with the team, an indication that he’s more week-to-week than day-to-day.

“He’s a huge part of our team, and he’s a big presence in the (locker) room, too,” defenseman Mikhail Sergachev said. “He’s fun to be around, and whenever somebody goes down, they’re always with the guys and they’re always part of the team.”

The Lightning’s layoff before the start of the Eastern Conference final — the second-round sweep of Florida ended Monday, and the second-round series between the Hurricanes and Rangers won’t end until at least Saturday — helps the likelihood that Point can return during the postseason.

The Lightning’s attitude is that the longer they play, the better the odds that Point can return.

“We know how important he is to our team and the caliber of player that he is and what he’s done in these past couple of (Cup) runs,” Stamkos said. “We just hope there’s enough time for him to get back and play this playoffs. We’d all love to see ‘Pointer’ back on the ice and be playing with us.”

When it was clear Point would not be able to return in Game 7 against Toronto, he grabbed a tablet and began helping and encouraging teammates from the bench. It’s a part of the Lightning’s makeup that every player wants to do his part, even if he can’t be on the ice, to contribute to winning.

When Point was injured, few would have predicted the Lightning would survive that night, let alone go on to sweep the Panthers.

“They just want to win. They want to keep going,” Lightning assistant coach Jeff Halpern said. “I think this group has, like, a schoolyard mentality. When you win, you keep playing, and they don’t want to give up the court.

“I don’t think there’s any way (Point) was getting off that bench (in Game 7). I think he’s probably still trying to figure out a way to help in some way because he is such a competitor.”

When the Lightning advanced to the 2020 Cup final, Stamkos returned in Game 3 and scored on his third of five shifts before reaggravating his injury. The Lightning won the title in six games, and Stamkos emerged from the locker room in uniform to accept the Cup and celebrate with it.

In the last regular season, the Lightning used Nikita Kucherov’s season-long recovery from hip surgery as motivation that if they made it to the postseason, he’d return. Kucherov was tremendous in those playoffs, despite playing the final six games with a cracked rib and wearing a protective flak jacket.

Also in the last postseason, forward Alex Killorn broke his left fibula in Game 1 of the Cup final against the Canadiens. He had a metal rod inserted to give the bone stability with the hope of returning for Game 6 or 7. The Lightning won in five games.

Point is “working his butt off” to return, Stamkos said.

“He’s got so much respect in the dressing room, and he brings that kind of light-hearted energy to the room, too,” Stamkos said.

“You have a choice. Are you going to be a guy that’s kind of moping around, or you’re going to be a guy that is working hard and being around the guys and trying to help out as much as you can, and that’s what Pointer’s doing.”

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

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