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Brayden Point poses a unique challenge for stingy Canadiens

·5-min read
Tampa Bay Lightning forward Brayden Point is a master of evading defenders in tight spaces. (Andrew Bershaw/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)
Tampa Bay Lightning forward Brayden Point is a master of evading defenders in tight spaces. (Andrew Bershaw/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

There is a working theory that in the playoffs, the dimensions of the game tighten up entirely. The best players in the league have less room to operate, with increased attention to detail on their every move in the offensive zone. 

Tampa Bay Lighting star Brayden Point went on a postseason run unlike any in decades, and the reason why he was able to score in nine consecutive games is because he's the best player in the NHL at navigating tight spaces. 

Point may not be Tampa's most impactful forward — that's Nikita Kucherov, who can do things no other player in the league can, even while injured — nor is he is the Lightning's leading candidate to lift the Conn Smythe Trophy this summer, as that would be Andrei Vasilevskiy, the world's best goaltender. Point makes the ice surface seem larger by extension, with a nearly unmatched ability to evade stick-checks, and in doing so, he almost tied Reggie Leach's record for most consecutive playoff games with a goal (10), falling short after being left off the scoresheet in Game 7 against the Islanders. 

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This tweet from The Athletic's Thomas Drance, in some ways encapsulates what Point represents for the current generation of short kings thriving, and perhaps where the NHL is headed more broadly.  

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Don't let Point's 5-foot-10, 165-pound stature fool you — he's impossibly strong. This first-period goal against the Islanders in Game 6 is a key example of his lower-body strength winning out. There's no way Point should be able to fend off Adam Pelech — a quality defender in his own right — spin off contact and score with his back facing the net initially. Few would describe this as a highlight-reel goal, which Point can score in bunches when needed, but the degree of difficulty is exceptional, and it's a testament to why he's thriving at a time when offense is expected to dry up. 

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Here's another example of an ugly-looking, yet difficult goal from Point against the Islanders in Game 3. As Tampa's power play expires, a point shot from Victor Hedman creates a big rebound which Point is able to get to through traffic. Point gets cross-checked in the back by Islanders forward Casey Cizikas while getting his shot off and still finds a way while falling to slide the puck past Semyon Varlamov. There are a number of goals Point has scored this postseason that have been generated by his speed and acceleration alone, goals that will be regulars on your plays of the month highlight-reel packs, but this is perhaps what separates him from the competition. 

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This power-play goal against the Hurricanes in Game 1 of Round 2 is another example of Point's ability to score from tight angles. Point's speed and ability to evade defenders is one of his defining qualities, but accounting for the quality of opponent — Jordan Staal is no defensive slouch — it's all the more impressive that he can pull off a series of dekes before electing to roof it on his backhand.

Point's underlying numbers aren't as strong as they were last summer, but that's also true of his teammates. Tampa Bay was largely out-possessed by their opponents and hold sub-50 percent Corsi for and expected goals for percentages as a team during the playoffs, according to Natural Stat Trick

Lauded for doing all the small things well, Point continues to be a pain in the ass for opposing defenders, is tied for third in the NHL with five drawn penalties — teammate Blake Coleman ranks first with seven — and has been on the ice for 11 high-danger goals for, while being on the ice for five against

In this year's Cup final, Point will have to continue to battle through tight spaces if he is to keep up his torrid form against the Canadiens. If he enters the offensive zone with the ability to take two strides, all bets are off. Florida's MacKenzie Weegar was quietly one of the NHL's best defensemen this year — at this juncture, he's probably my vote for the league's most underrated player — and Point put him in a blender. 

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Montreal suffocated Vegas, not allowing its opponent to generate any quality shots in the slot, or near the center of the ice, where it is statistically more likely to score goals. Shutting down the Lightning, who may not be as potent as last year but are the most flexible team in the league and can score in droves, will be a four-line effort. 

One has to assume that Montreal's shutdown center, Phillip Danault, will initially draw the assignment against Point, Kucherov and arguably the finest puck-retrieval specialist in the league, Ondrej Palat. This will be Point's toughest individual assignment yet, and it's because of his ability to create even when the defense tries to collapse on him that will allow him to operate with freedom. He is the danger. 

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