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TAMPA -- Brayden Point just wanted to get noticed when training camp opened seven months ago. Had someone whispered in his ear then that come March 9 he'd be the Tampa Bay Lightning's No. 1 center -- well, you can just imagine his reaction.

"I would have told you that you were crazy,'' Point said with a laugh after Tampa Bay's 4-1 win over the Minnesota Wild on Thursday. "Because I was just trying to make the team, just get some games in this year."

The rookie center is more important than ever now to surging Lightning, who lost three centers -- Tyler Johnson, Vladislav Namestnikov and Cedric Paquette -- during the course of Thursday's game, but are just four points behind the Toronto Maple Leafs for the last wild-card spot in the East.

Those losses came just over a week after centers Valtteri Filppula and Brian Boyle were traded. And superstar captain Steven Stamkos, the team's No. 1 center, has been out since Nov. 15 -- although he's making strides in his recovery from a serious knee injury.

"It's tough to see guys go down, some top guys. Hopefully they're back soon," said Point. "But it's an opportunity for me to step in and play some big minutes.''

And so Point, who turns 21 next week, has soundly become a major cog in his first year as a pro. But you won't find a single person in the Lightning dressing room who doesn't believe he can handle it.

"He's been phenomenal,'' said Lightning defenseman Victor Hedman. "Coming into training camp, he was actually the guy that really stood out. He works so hard, he's so mature in his play. Very responsible in all parts of the game. He's got a bright future ahead of him."

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An NHL scout told on Thursday night that Point reminded him of another Lightning center.

"He's impressive to watch. Reminds me of when Tyler Johnson broke into the league, in terms of that edge, and that tenacity that he just won't lose a puck battle," said the scout.

When told of the scout's comment., Point demurred.

"[Johnson is] a great player, and if I end up being as good as him, I'll be extremely happy," Point said. "It's obviously a nice compliment for sure. He's a guy I watch in practice and in games. He's a great guy to learn from.''

When Johnson left Thursday's game with a lower-body injury, Point replaced him on the top line between Nikita Kucherov and Ondrej Palat.

If the Lightning somehow catch the Maple Leafs and make the playoffs, odds are it will be because mostly of guys like Hedman -- who is having a Norris Trophy-worthy season -- as well as the electric Jonathan Drouin, who has been unreal in the second half of the season; Kucherov, a goal-scoring machine; and goalie Andrei Vasilevskiy, who has been lights-out since Tampa Bay traded Ben Bishop. But Point, who has made the jump from junior to the NHL this season, after playing nine games in the AHL late last year, has been right there with them in terms of impact.

As the story goes, Al Murray, the director of amateur scouting for the Lightning, and Tampa Bay GM Steve Yzerman were at a Moose Jaw Warriors playoff game in the spring of 2012, mainly to see highly touted prospect Morgan Rielly, when they found that they couldn't take their eyes off a little center. Bolts WHL scout Brad Whelen had also seen Point play a lot, so Tampa Bay drafted that five-foot-10, 166-pound center two years later with the 79th overall pick.

The key for Point in making the jump from junior to pro has been improving his skating.

"I worked a lot on my skating," said Point. "That helped me. Worked hard in the summer. (Former world champion figure skater) Barb Underhill helped me a ton with my skating. I owe a lot to her for helping me fix my stride and helping me go faster.''

He has won over the coaching staff in Tampa Bay.

"There's a kid that has a high hockey IQ," said head coach Jon Cooper of Point. "Guys that have that, and couple that with an impeccable work ethic, usually figure out the game and how to play it. And for somebody who's probably on the smaller side of players in this league, gosh he sure wins a lot of puck battles. When you have the puck and you are just creating space for yourself and making plays for other guys, guys want to play with you. It's really a tribute to him, for somebody that's a rookie in this league, to make the mark that he has.''

The five-foot-10, 166-pound Point had to take his life in his own hands growing up in Calgary and cheers for a rival.

"I was a Markus Naslund fan growing up, and a [Vancouver] Canucks fan," he said with a smile. "I got razzed a little bit in Calgary for that. But I loved watching him.''

A dozen or so years later, Point is getting his own opportunity to inspire hockey fans.