Signs Point to Lightning star returning for Cup Final Game 1

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Tampa Bay’s Brayden Point looked like himself on the ice Tuesday, just a month after being unable to skate when his right leg crumbled beneath him and he needed help to hobble off the rink.

Point appeared ready to return from a significant right leg injury that knocked him out of the past two rounds of the Tampa Bay Lightning’s latest run to the Stanley Cup Final. Assuming nothing goes wrong before Game 1 Wednesday night, the back-to-back defending champions will be getting their leading goal-scorer from the past two championship years back just in time for the start of a highly anticipated series against the Colorado Avalanche.

“Things are leaning towards him playing,” coach Jon Cooper said. “If it’s not (Game 1), I really anticipate Game 2, but we’ll see how he is.”

Point said, “I don’t think anything is guaranteed” and added he’s enjoying just practicing with teammates again. Still, given the stakes and Point’s visible improvement a return is likely. If so, he won’t face any artificial minutes restriction.

“He’s an elite player in this league, and he will play his minutes according of how he’s responding,” Cooper said. “A lot of it’s going to be on how he’s feeling. I wouldn’t classify that Pointer’s going to be sitting on the bench a whole lot if he’s healthy. He’ll be out there.”

The Lightning were missing only winger Brandon Hagel for their first practice in Denver, though the key trade deadline acquisition skated Monday in Tampa. Colorado is facing injury questions of its own with forwards Nazem Kadri (thumb) and Andrew Cogliano (hand) questionable for Game 1 and beyond.

[Stanley Cup Playoffs 2022 schedule, TV info]

WHICH AVS GOALIE?

Colorado goaltenders Darcy Kuemper and Pavel Francouz said Tuesday they had not yet heard who was starting Game 1. But that’s not unusual.

“That’s how we handled it all year,” Kuemper said. “We would usually get a text the night before the game, and they’ll let us know who’s starting the next night.”

General manager Joe Sakic deemed Kuemper fully healthy after the veteran goalie missed the bulk of the Western Conference final with an undisclosed injury. Kuemper earlier took an inadvertent stick to the right eye through a hole in his mask during the first round against Nashville and also missed time then.

Despite Francouz being 6-0 this postseason, going back to a healthy Kuemper is the most likely decision for coach Jared Bednar and his staff in a series against reigning playoff MVP Andrei Vasilevskiy and the Lightning. Colorado is just the fifth team in NHL history to have two goalies each win at least five games during a playoff run.

“We’re definitely confident in both goalies,” Sakic said. “Our guys have been committed defensively all year. That’s one thing I don’t think our players get enough credit for is if they’ve got to close out a game, they find a way to do it and play the right way and they’ve done that all year.”

PERRY 3-FOR-3

While Tampa Bay’s Pat Maroon, who won with St. Louis in 2019, goes for a fourth consecutive championship, first-year teammate Corey Perry is in a very different position. Perry is the final for a third year in a row with three different teams after losing to Tampa Bay with Dallas in 2020 and Montreal in 2021.

Perry is the first player since Marian Hossa (2008 Penguins, 2009 Red Wings and 2010 Blackhawks) to do that. Hossa lost the first two before winning with Chicago.

“It has been a strange road,” Perry said. “Hopefully the third time’s the charm.”