SUNRISE, Fla. — Brayden Point‘s lower-body injury was an opportunity for others to step up for the Tampa Bay Lightning in their 4-1 victory against the Florida Panthers in Game 1 of the Eastern Conference Second Round at FLA Live Arena on Tuesday.
Certainly, having star forward Nikita Kucherov score one of their three power-play goals, as well as make a dazzling play to set up Corey Perry for another, was key. But the Lightning needed a full group effort from their lineup without Point, one of their top forwards, who was injured in Game 7 of their first-round series against the Toronto Maple Leafs.
They got one Tuesday and will probably need another if he’s unable to play in Game 2 at Florida on Thursday (7 p.m. ET; TNT, CBC, SN, TVAS).
“Let’s be honest. We miss a guy like Brayden Point,” Lightning coach Jon Cooper said. “But if you’re going to have the success we’ve had, whether you’re missing [Steven] Stamkos for a long period of time or ‘Kuch’ for a period of time, whoever it is, this group has found a way to fill in the gaps and they did that tonight.”
Perry helped fill in the gap by jumping into Point’s spot on the first power-play unit and scoring Tampa Bay’s first goal to tie it 1-1 with 3:38 remaining in the second period. He then teamed with fellow fourth-liners, Pat Maroon and Pierre-Edouard Bellemare, to produce Bellemare’s rebound goal that gave the Lightning a 2-1 lead 3:35 into the third period.
Perry, who won the Stanley Cup with the Anaheim Ducks in 2007, and Bellemare, who reached the Stanley Cup Final with the Vegas Golden Knights in 2018, signed with Tampa Bay as unrestricted free agents last summer. They weren’t part of the Lightning when they defeated the Panthers in the first round last season before going on to win their second straight Stanley Cup championship.
But they are the kind of depth players winning teams need to come through at certain moments during a playoff run, much like in the 2021 Stanley Cup Final, when Swiss Army knife forward Alex Killorn missed Games 2-5 after sustaining a broken fibula. His teammates stepped up then and, like clockwork, did the same on Tuesday.
The line of Maroon, Perry and Bellemare didn’t play much against the Maple Leafs in the first round, but they were needed against the Panthers with Cooper and his staff opting to dress 11 forwards and seven defensemen without Point, who usually centers the top line.
“It’s fun to be able to help the team offensively at times,” Bellemare said. “Our line, last series we had to kind of manage when we were on the ice and tonight it was more about trying to build momentum for the team when we’re out there. Corey got a big goal, and my goal was just a simple play.”
[RELATED: Complete Panthers vs. Lightning series coverage]
Kucherov, as expected, was dynamic throughout but changed the momentum late in the second period. With Tampa Bay trailing, he drew a hooking penalty on Florida defenseman MacKenzie Weegar with 3:59 left in the second. During the ensuing power play, he carried the puck over the Panthers’ blue line on the rush, cut around defenseman Aaron Ekblad with an inside-outside move, and fed Perry for a shot from the right circle into a mostly empty net behind goalie Sergei Bobrovsky.
“It definitely [stinks] not to have ‘Pointer’ here, but he will be with us,” Kucherov said. “But if we’ve got ‘Pers’ in there and he’s a Hall of Famer and he knows what to do to win.”
The Lightning carried the energy from Perry’s goal into the third period, when they scored three unanswered goals, including the final two on the power play, to pull away.
“It’s a 1-0 game and the second period is dwindling down and for us to get that goal, special teams have been a big part of these playoffs so far, and that was another big play,” Cooper said. “But to give us a little boost going in after the second all tied up, now it’s a 20-minute game and we won the period.”
The Lightning’s depth was tested further after defenseman Erik Cernak left after blocking a shot in the second period, and defenseman Cal Foote also missed some time before returning in the third. But Tampa Bay hunkered down with the healthy defensemen it had left and outshot Florida 18-10 in the third period.
“That was some early adversity for us as far as not having ‘Pointer’ here for Game 1,” said defenseman Ryan McDonagh, who had four of Tampa Bay’s 16 blocked shots. “There’s going to be times throughout any series where guys are out for a bit with injuries and taking nicks and bumps. We’re used to it now at this point. Unfortunately, you’ve got to roll with it and don’t change our game plan because of who’s out there. … So, it’s a next-man-up mentality and go out there and do our jobs.”