TRAIKOS: Tampa Bay’s Brayden Point aims to make playoff return for Game 1 of the Stanley Cup final

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DENVER — On the eve of the Stanley Cup final, it was a good sign to see Brayden Point skating on a line with Nick Paul and Ross Colton during Tuesday’s practice. But the Tampa Bay Lightning centre, who hasn’t played since Game 7 in the first round, was hesitant about declaring himself available for Game 1 on Wednesday.

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“It’s been tough. You want to go out there. That’s why we play,” said Point, who suffered a lower-body injury about a month ago against the Maple Leafs. “But with the team playing so well, that made it easier. You’ve got to make sure that when you come back you’re going to help the team.”

Without Point in the lineup, the Lightning have gone 8-2 in these playoffs. That might be one of the reasons why the team hasn’t rushed him back, especially if he isn’t 100%. 

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“It’s been inspiring,” said Point, who has two goals and four points in seven games. “They’ve played fantastic hockey. The boys have worked extremely hard to get to this point and sacrificed their bodies a lot to get to this point. It really helped me just to focus on trying to get back.”

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When asked if he might limit Point’s role, Lightning head coach Jon Cooper said it would depend on how Point is feeling. But knowing Point’s competitive streak, Cooper wasn’t expecting he’d have to.

“Brayden Point is an elite player in this league,” Cooper said of the 26-year-old, who has scored a team-leading 14 goals in each of Tampa Bay’s past two Stanley Cup runs. “He will play his minutes according to how he’s responding. It’s tough to not play and then jump right into a Stanley Cup game … but I wouldn’t (expect) Point will be sitting on the bench.”

KUEMPER LOOKS TO RETURN FOR AVS

Point is not the only injured player hoping to get back into the playoffs.

While Colorado’s Nazem Kadri remains unlikely to return anytime soon after having his thumb operated on a couple of weeks ago, the Avalanche will have the option of having Darcy Kuemper between the pipes for Game 1.

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“It was super hard watching, but it made it a lot easier with how much success we were having,” said Kuemper, who suffered a lower-body injury in Game 1 of the Western Conference final.

“(Pavel Francouz) came in and played unbelievably and, obviously, we were able to win four straight.”

Colorado hasn’t announced whether Kuemper or Francouz will get the nod against Tampa Bay, but with Andrei Vasilevskiy once again putting on a clinic in net for the Lightning, whoever it is will have to be sharp.

“You can’t really worry who’s on the other end, you’ve just got to go out there and play your game and make sure you’re playing well,” said Kuemper, who is 6-1-1 with a 2.65 goals-against average and a .897 save percentage. “Obviously, he’s had a lot of success and is a guy that everyone tries to measure themselves against. So it’s fun challenge.”

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TAMPA BAY EMBRACES THE THREE-PEAT 

Call it a jinx if you want, but the Lightning have not shied away from what it would mean to go down in history as one of the few teams to have won three straight championships.

The way they’ve talked about it, you’d think they have already completed the three-peat.

“Listen, there’s no denying we want to win the Stanley Cup again,” said Lightning captain Steven Stamkos. “And I’ve talked about that feeling that you have when you win it, it’s the best feeling you can ever have as an athlete. And it motivates you even more. But there are still some guys (on the team who haven’t won) and we’re working just as hard to get them a Cup as well.

“So we realize how special this group is, but we always talk about, let’s not waste this opportunity. Our group is too good to not give ourselves a chance to compete for the Stanley Cup.”

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LEHKONEN FACING FAMILIAR FOE

One year later, Artturi Lehkonen is back in the Stanley Cup final. And, once again, he’s facing a familiar opponent.

“It’s kind of like a rematch for me,” said the Avalanche forward, who played against Tampa Bay in last year’s final as a member of the Montreal Canadiens.

Lehkonen, who began the season in Montreal, was dealt to Colorado at the trade deadline in exchange for Justin Barron and a second-round pick in 2024. 

“It was an interesting day, for sure,” he said of the trade. “I was just taking my pre-game nap and then I got a call and I was just like, ‘OK, I guess I got to get on packing.’ But it’s an exciting time to get another shot at the Stanley Cup.”

The trade has turned out to be one of the more impactful ones made this year. Lehkonen, who had six goals and nine points in 16 games during the regular season with the Avalanche, has chipped in another six goals and 11 points in 14 playoff games. He has also made a name for himself as a clutch performer, with three game-winning goals.

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“I’ll just keep focusing on how I’m playing,” said Lehkonen. “You can’t force anything.”

PALAT WAS ALMOST SEATTLE-BOUND

With eight goals and 16 points in 17 games, Ondrej Palat has been “Mr. Reliable” for the Lightning during these playoffs. But there was a time during last summer when the unprotected forward in the expansion draft thought he was going to be Mr. Expendable. 

“I was waiting in my hometown. We didn’t know what’s going to happen,” he said.“Then Seattle took Yanni (Gourde). I was happy that i got to stay in Tampa for at least another year.”

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With his contract set to expire, Palat’s future in Tampa Bay is once again cloudy. But the veteran forward hasn’t ruled out a return to the Lightning.

“It’s in my head,” he said of his contract situation. “But I’m just focused on the Final and then there’s a time for the next step.”

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twitter.com/Michael_Traikos

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