TORONTO — Brayden Point had been the engine for the Lightning in their first-round playoff series against the Maple Leafs. Whether it was pushing the offense with his speed, keeping the Lightning alive with his Game 6 overtime goal or shadowing Toronto’s top guns, Auston Matthews and Mitch Marner, on the defensive end, Point had been the best player on the ice wearing a bolt on his chest.
So when Point slid into the boards late in the first period of Saturday night’s do-or-die Game 7, his right leg contorting under his body in a way that immediately elicited a gasp, everything changed for the Lightning.
The forward tried to return for the second period but shut it down after a brief shift.
Lesser teams would have folded after losing a player like Point. But the Lightning rose to the occasion. They went into shutdown mode, held arguably the most potent offense in the league to a single goal, silenced the crowd at Scotiabank Arena and sent the Maple Leafs into another uncomfortable offseason with a 2-1 win.
The reigning back-to-back Stanley Cup champions advanced to a second-round date with the Panthers. Game 1 will be Monday or Tuesday in Sunrise.
“Adversity rears its head in so many different ways,” coach Jon Cooper said. “And sometimes, an urgency that’s already there, it kicks something into gear.
“When ‘Pointer’ got hurt, it seemed to lock the entire team in. I don’t think we looked back after that. I don’t think you could have done what we’ve done the last couple of years unless you have players that can respond the way they did.”
Said captain Steven Stamkos: “Give our group a lot of credit. It could have been a night where we just said, ‘Aw, Pointer’s done and it’s going to be one of those nights,’ but we just didn’t. We fell back on the standard that’s set for this group. And that’s to just do whatever it takes to win.
“It doesn’t matter who does it, when, why. It’s just win. And it’s certainly a contagious feeling and attitude. I’m very proud of this group, but that’s just one (series). We want to keep going.”
The Maple Leafs, who still haven’t won a playoff series since 2004, pushed the Lightning to the brink. The Lightning never led the series until the final game and needed Point’s Game 6 overtime goal to force Game 7.
“They gave us everything we could handle,” Cooper said of the Maple Leafs. “It took everything to knock these guys out.”
Before the game, Lightning forward Corey Perry, a veteran of 10 Game 7s, said that if you show up in Game 7, you’ll be remembered. Forward Nick Paul, acquired in a trade with the Senators less than two months ago, earned his place in Lightning history by scoring the first two postseason goals of his career.
Just 73 seconds after Point painfully skated off the ice in the first period, hunched over and unable to put weight on his right leg, Paul put the Lightning up 1-0.
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Lightning defenseman Mikhail Sergachev blocked Maple Leafs defenseman Mark Giordano’s shot, and the puck rimmed out near the blue line. Paul collected it and skated up the ice, creating a 2-on-1. He fed forward Ross Colton for a one-timer from the top of the circles. As Paul drove toward the net, a long rebound landed on his blade for an easy putback past goaltender Jack Campbell.
NICK PAULWHAT A TIME FOR YOUR FIRST CAREER PLAYOFF GOAL pic.twitter.com/LPc2QdHUDU
NICK PAUL IS NEXT LEVEL pic.twitter.com/wY2HmAzH6P
After Toronto defenseman Morgan Rielly evened the score with 6:35 left in the second period and brought life back to the home crowd, Paul quieted them shortly after. After Lightning forward Alex Killorn pushed the puck into the neutral zone, Paul gathered it at the Toronto blue line, weaved through two defenders, lost the puck, kicked it forward into the slot and launched an off-balance wrister into the back of the net.
Paul — who grew up in the Toronto suburb of Mississauga — lifted his stick in celebration and extended his arms as he glared into the seats.
“Growing up, going to the Leafs game, and even in the warmups, they have the chants going. The electricity in this building was nuts,” Paul said. “So to come in and work as hard as we did, there was no doubt in our game.
“We stuck together as a team, and everyone brought their A game: blocking shots, being detailed, being hard on pucks, winning their battles.”
When Point couldn’t continue after returning for one shift in the second period — he remained on the bench, studying film on a tablet and playing the role of cheerleader — it not only left the Lightning without one of their best players but also forced them to play down a forward. But that’s when the Lightning went into lockdown mode, especially at the end while protecting a one-goal lead.
“It’s dedication,” said defenseman Victor Hedman, who led the team with six blocks. “I think the last period shows what we’re all about. It wasn’t the prettiest, but we locked it down.”
The Lightning put up a wall in front of the net to help goaltender Andrei Vasilevskiy, blocking 26 shots. They threw themselves in front of pucks, and on the ones that happened to get through, they prevented rebound opportunities. They also killed all three Maple Leafs power plays.
“I don’t want to sit here and say you throw the game plan out the window,” Cooper said of the strategy without Point. “But when guys are laying out and fully committed to keeping the puck out of the net, some of that’s game plan, but a lot of that’s heart.”
Vasilevskiy, who allowed at least three goals in each of the series’ first five games, was remarkable. He did allow his first goal in a series clincher since the 2000 Eastern Conference final against the Islanders, ending his streak of five straight shutout wins in clinching games. But he found his mojo, stopping 30 shots, including the last 19 he faced.
Contact Eduardo A. Encina at email@example.com. Follow @EddieintheYard.
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