Point, man: The key to the Lightning power play is in the interior

Yahoo Canada Sports

It’s not as simple as jamming the five most talented players onto one unit and sending them over the boards all at once.

Someone with the speed, skill and slipperiness to beat the first defender in isolation to gain the offensive zone, marksmen who carry the threat to score from various angles and distances, a set structure with which to launch practised drills, a prosperous power play is much more than just the total amount of talent one team can throw at another.

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Take for instance the Toronto Maple Leafs, who despite assembling one of the best five-man units on paper with the summer addition of John Tavares, had been in an absolute rut with the man advantage (until breaking out against Colorado), performing third from the bottom in the NHL over a 10-week stretch. They had become predictable, and therefore unable to derive and sustain the same success they had earlier this season.

So it does make you wonder, when you turn on their power play, how the Tampa Bay Lightning continue to perform at the top of the NHL with the man up. Or more specifically, how Steven Stamkos and Nikita Kucherov, stationed at the left and right flanks, continue to thread passes back and forth through traffic to set up one-time scoring chances. Or how Victor Hedman has shooting lanes to choose from with his heavy shot from the point.

Everyone knows what they’re trying to do, but can’t stop it. Are these weapons so superior? Or is there something else here?

Brayden Point is the Lightning’s X factor on the power play. (Ciaran Breen/Yahoo Sports Canada/Getty)
Brayden Point is the Lightning’s X factor on the power play. (Ciaran Breen/Yahoo Sports Canada/Getty)

Back in November, Brayden Point scored three consecutive power-play goals across a 91-second stretch to lead a comeback victory over the Pittsburgh Penguins. With two scored at 5-on-3, Point didn’t feast from his customary central role to record the sixth-fastest individual three-goal outburst in NHL history, but it was a chance to highlight his important work on the NHL’s best special teams unit.

As talented as they are across the umbrella, Point is at the core of Tampa Bay’s vaunted power play.

“It’s the most important role,” Stamkos said of Point’s central function a few weeks back at the NHL All-Star Game — an event his teammate was somewhat contentiously excluded from.

“You need to be smart. Point knows where to be, he knows where to go, he knows how to get the puck off quick, he knows when to distribute it. He knows when the passes are for him or not, and knows where to be so he’s not in my lane.”

As Stamkos explains, you can’t “just stand there” when filling out the “bumper” role on the power play. With movement and positioning off the puck and the ability to draw defenders by changing the placement of his stick, the subtleties in Point’s movement is what sets the table for those distinctly breathtaking moments from Tampa Bay’s skill players.

“There are a lot of variables that go into the play that are never talked about because the seam pass went through,” Stamkos said of his cross-zone connection with Kucherov. “Everyone thinks he had nothing to do with it, but he’s the main reason why our power play is able to function the way it does.”

Of course, Point isn’t just a decoy or the intermediary, or someone out there to space the zone. He might not be the first or second option when setting up a crack at goal on the man advantage, but with a league-leading 16 power-play goals, he’s an elite finisher from the slot by NHL standards.

“With two guys on the flank that can shoot, you are dangerous on both sides,” Lightning coach Jon Cooper said of his team’s power play. “(But) if you got that third guy in the hole that can put the puck in the net, now you have three lanes of guys that can do it.

“They can all see the ice, they all have vision. It’s probably something we were missing in the past.”

In executing set pieces, Point is an invaluable presence for his ability to create scoring lanes and to convert from the trigger position. He’s even better, though, when systems break down, when a shot leads to a scramble, or when a loose puck needs to be chased down.

When things go haywire, that’s when his offensive instincts kick in — and his combination of smarts and skills gives him a leg up on the penalty killers.

“When puck retrievals come into play, rebounds — that’s huge,” said Stamkos. “That’s when you get teams on the go, they tire out a bit. That’s when the seams open up.”

Tied for fourth in the NHL with 27 power-play points, opportunities with the man advantage have contributed in large part to Point breaking into that next tier of NHL stars this season — and achieving the sort dominance the Lightning players first got a glimpse of in the playoffs last spring, says Stamkos.

But his role on the power play is just one of many specialty functions carried out for Cooper and the Lightning coaching staff, and just a small part of his overall game.

The first over the boards to match up against the team’s No. 1 scoring threats, Point lending his acumen to the defensive side of the game is just as important to the Lightning than anything he does with an attack in mind.

A wearer of many hats, Point is emerging as a central component to most of what makes the Lightning so damn dominant.

“He’s just going to continue to get better, too,” Stamkos said. “That’s the scary thing.”

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