Signs Point to Lightning star back 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 he was unable to skate when his right leg collapsed under him and he needed help getting out of the rink in limping.

Point looked set to return from a serious right leg injury that knocked him out of the final two rounds of the Tampa Bay Lightning’s final run to the Stanley Cup Finals. Assuming all goes well before Game 1 on Wednesday night, the back-to-back defending champions will get their top scorer of the last two league years 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 not (game 1), I’m really anticipating game 2, but we’ll see how it goes.”

Point said: “I don’t think anything is guaranteed” and added that he was enjoying training with his teammates again. Still, given the stakes and Point’s visible improvement, a comeback is likely. If so, he will face no artificial minute restrictions.

“He’s an elite player in this league, and he’ll play his minutes based on how he reacts,” Cooper said. “A lot of it will depend on how he feels. I wouldn’t say Pointer is going to be sitting on the bench a lot if he’s healthy. He’ll be there.

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

Colorado goaltenders Darcy Kuemper and Pavel Francouz said Tuesday they have yet to hear who will start Game 1. But that’s not unusual.

“That’s how we handled it all year,” Kuemper said. “We would usually get a text the day before the game, and they would tell us who would start the following night.”

General manager Joe Sakic deemed Kuemper fully healthy after the veteran guard missed most of the Western Conference Finals with an undisclosed injury. Kuemper earlier inadvertently took a stick to his right eye through a hole in his mask in the first round against Nashville and also missed time.

Although Francouz is 6-0 in the playoffs, switching back to a healthy Kuemper is the likeliest move for coach Jared Bednar and his team in a series against reigning playoff MVP Andrei Vasilevskiy and the Lightning. Colorado is only the fifth team in NHL history to have two goaltenders each winning at least five games in a playoff series.

“We definitely have confidence in our two goalkeepers,” Sakic said. “Our guys have been committed defensively all year. That’s one thing that I don’t think our players get enough credit for is that if they have to finish a game they find a way to do it and play the right way and they have it done all year round.

While Tampa Bay’s Pat Maroon, who won with St. Louis in 2019, is aiming for a fourth straight championship, freshman teammate Corey Perry is in a very different position. Perry is in the Finals for a third straight year 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 so. Hossa lost the first two before winning with Chicago.

“It’s been a strange road,” Perry said. “Let’s hope the third time is the charm.”

Follow AP Hockey writer Stephen Whyno on Twitter at https://twitter.com/SWhyno

More AP NHL: https://apnews.com/hub/NHL and https://twitter.com/AP_Sports

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