Making his first appearance after missing the entire NHL regular season with a hip injury, Tampa Bay right winger Nikita Kucherov scored two power-play goals Sunday night to help the defending champion Lightning beat the Florida Panthers 5-4 in Game 1 of their playoff series.
Kucherov had surgery on Dec. 29 and played his first game since Sept. 28.
"I was excited to get back in a game. I've waited for this for a long time,'' Kucherov said.
Kucherov tied the score 2-all on his first power-play goal at 4 minutes, 48 seconds of the second. His second tally gave the Lightning a 3-2 lead when he one-timed a pass from Victor Hedman from the right circle with 5:09 left in the period.
Since his NHL debut in 2013-14, Kucherov has scored 38 postseason goals, tying him with Alex Ovechkin for most among all players
Brayden Point scored two late goals, including the game winner for the Lightning with 1:14 left in the third period.
For Tampa Bay, the return of several key players couldn't have come at a more opportune time.
Steven Stamkos, who hadn't played since April 8 with a lower-body injury -- a span of 16 games -- returned for Game 1. Hedman, who returned after missing the past two games with a lower-body injury, had three assists. Ryan McDonagh (upper body) also returned after missing the last two games of the regular season.
The game featured four lead changes.
"Two exceptional hockey teams going at it,'' Lightning coach Jon Cooper said. "A win is a win. Whether you blow a team out or win by one goal or you come back to do it. You just want to win. I was proud of the guys. We had a one-goal lead and coughed it up. There was no panic on the bench.''
Point tied it at 4 with seven minutes to go on his power-play goal and then got the winner when he skated in on a breakaway and backhanded the puck past Panthers goaltender Sergei Bobrovsky.
"I knew I might have some space, made a move and it went in,'' Point said.
The Panthers had won their last six games of the regular season, including the final two against the Lightning, before the return of several of their top players.
"Very intense game. There was a lot going on out there,'' Florida coach Joel Quenneville said. "Their power play was the difference tonight.''
The teams meet Tuesday for Game 2.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.