TAMPA, Fla. (AP) — Many Tampa Bay Lightning players will head into the offseason looking to move past this season. However, Brayden Point may reflect on it a bit.
The rookie center, a bright spot for the Lightning, scored a pair of goals, including the winner with 1:24 left, and had an assist as the Lightning topped the Buffalo Sabres 4-2 in the season finale for both teams Sunday.
Point, 21, finished the season with 18 goals and 22 assists for 40 points to lead all Lightning rookies.
“I’m just so impressed that someone that young and a little bit undersized can come in (and do what he did this season),” Tampa Bay coach Jon Cooper said of the 5-foot-10, 166-pound Point. “A lot of players will put their teams on their backs, but his growth has been phenomenal. There’s not enough guys like him.”
Point was given room to grow as a player this season due to numerous injuries to the Lightning, most notably Steven Stamkos. The Tampa Bay captain missed all but 17 games this season after tearing the lateral meniscus in his right knee Nov. 15 and having surgery two days later. That injury allowed Point to get a considerable playing time at the No. 1 center position.
“Brayden Point took his game to new heights and a lot of that happened because of injuries to other guys,” Cooper said. “It’s been a big growing period for a lot of guys, and the bonus would’ve been if we could’ve squeaked into the playoffs.”
Braydon Coburn scored a short-handed goal and Victor Hedman added an empty-netter for the disappointing Lightning, who finished 42-30-10 for 94 points, but were considered a preseason favorite to win the Eastern Conference and were less than two years removed from playing in the Stanley Cup Finals.
“Ultimately, we had a pretty good season to come in with 94 points, but when you flirt with that 96-to-92-point range, it gets dangerous — you’re in danger of missing out (of the playoffs),” Cooper said. “This year, we flirted around with that number and then we missed out. That’s what happens.”
Tampa Bay won four of its last five, but had its playoff hopes end Saturday night when Toronto defeated Pittsburgh.
“We played well down the stretch,” Point said. “Lots of wins, lots of points, but, obviously, not enough.”
Coburn pointed to one of the Lightning’s rougher stretches over the season as a faltering factor. He said January did Tampa Bay no favors, as the team went 3-8-2.
“It’s great that we made it to the second-to-last game really meaning something,” Coburn said, “You look back and really kick yourself. It’s an empty feeling.”
William Carrier and Evander Kane scored for Buffalo, which finished 33-37-12.
Andrei Vasilevskiy made 26 saves for the Lightning, while Linus Ullmark stopped 33 of 36 shots he faced for the Sabres.
Carrier put the Sabres up 1-0 nearly 14 minutes into the game. Point tied it with his first goal in the second with assists from Hedman and Jake Dotchin.
With 12 minutes left in the second, the Lightning took the lead on Coburn’s short-handed goal off assists from Vladislav Namestnikov and Alex Killorn.
Kane tied it again at 2 with 8:43 left in the game with his team-leading 28th goal.
“Mentally, it’s been very difficult,” Kane said. “The last three weeks, we have known we were out of it. Some of us were hoping that this game would mean a little more than it did (Sunday), but, obviously, that wasn’t the case. It’s another year of not being where we want to be.”
Point’s second goal of the game put the Lightning ahead when he was trying to make a pass to Luke Witkowski on the back post, but the puck deflected into the Buffalo net off Rasmus Ristolainen’s skate.
“I thought it was fitting how the winning goal went in,” Cooper said. “The kid who works the hardest got awarded with a flukey one. He deserved that.”
Hedman’s empty-netter came with 1 second left.
As Cooper looks back on a season that slipped away, one positive he takes away is how the Lightning stayed in the hunt nearly until the end.
“There was a time in early February where we were not relevant at all, and this team to found a way to make themselves relevant through Game 81,” he added. “Five months from now, everyone will be 0-0-0. There’s a lot of fight in that group and to see that group will be back here next season, it’s great to be a part of that.”
Hedman picked up his 300th career NHL point with his assist on Point’s goal in the second. … Tampa Bay D Jason Garrison, C Tyler Johnson and C Cedric Paquette were all scratches. … Lightning RW J.T. Brown returned to the lineup after missing two games. … Buffalo LW C.J. Smith and C Sean Malone were both healthy scratches.