Saturday, May 26, 2018
Tampa Bay Lightning

Lightning-Capitals: What the Game 3 victory proved about Tampa Bay

WASHINGTON — Somebody had to do something.

The Lightning was in dire straits. Down 2-0 in the series. Nothing working.

Nothing happening. Half dead. Halfway to the offseason.

The Lightning needed someone to step up. Who knew that someone would step up wearing dress shoes instead of skates.

There were plenty of stars in the Lightning's off-the-mat victory in Game 3 of the Eastern Conference final against the Capitals. Actually, call them all-stars. Steven Stamkos, Nikita Kucherov, Brayden Point, Victor Hedman, Andrei Vasilevskiy. They all made the All-Star Game in Tampa this season, and their fingerprints could be found all over the Lightning's 4-2 victory Tuesday.

But in case you forgot, the Lightning had another all-star this season. And that one left the biggest mark of all in the Game 3 victory. Coach Jon Cooper was masterful. If coaches could be a part of hockey's three stars of the game, Cooper would have gotten the No. 1 star Tuesday.

"When things go stale a little bit,'' Lightning captain Stamkos said, "you mix things up.''

Cooper mixed things up a lot. It could've blown up in his face. Had it, and had the Lightning lost to go down 3-0 in the series and face elimination in Thursday's Game 4, the too-emotional fans who doubt Cooper's ability would again show their lack of hockey knowledge by flooding Twitter with #FireCooper tweets. (Seriously, that's crazy talk!)

Instead, he showed once again that the Lightning has one of the best coaches in the business.

It took guts to break up his best line of Point, Ondrej Palat and Tyler Johnson. It took nerve to take J.T. Miller off the line with Stamkos and Kucherov. But that's exactly what Cooper did, and all his shuffling sparked the Lightning to victory.

Of course, Cooper wasn't about to take credit for any of it. For a guy who doesn't lack confidence, he is always the first to deflect credit when it comes to a game's outcome.

"What goes into the decisions is we got to be a better team,'' Cooper said. "That's our job. We've got to find a way to be better. What we were doing in Games 1 and 2 wasn't working. We tweaked our lines. It was the way we played. That was the recipe.''

Yes, players play, and coaches coach. And the better the players you have, and the better your players play, the smarter the coach looks. But the Lightning players played better Tuesday because the coach did his job and did it well. Who says Cooper is more about motivation than strategy?

He smartly realized that Stamkos and Kucherov can often be a mess on defense, so he put the reliable Palat out there with them. That actually created more offense.

"I don't think we were creating us much as we wanted to 5-on-5," Miller said. "Sometimes you got to throw a little twist, and (Tuesday) it paid off."

It's interesting that Miller said that even though he was the guy taken off the top line. He didn't complain. He didn't whine. That says a lot about Miller. But it also says a lot about Cooper, who made the move and had the full support of his players, including Miller.

Cooper then mixed up two other lines, balancing toughness, scoring and defense. And the line he didn't touch —Ryan Callahan, Chris Kunitz and Cedric Paquette — did a good job on Washington's top line. Oh, give Cooper credit for drawing up that assignment, too.

The result was a team that looked nothing like the one that sleepwalked through the first two games.

"It probably helped out a little bit,'' Cooper said, "but again, we played better as a team.''

Okay, so back to this "Fire Cooper" talk from some blockheads. There aren't many of them. But there are a few. Listen, this is a coach who has taken the Lightning to three conference finals in four seasons. Yet the lack of a Stanley Cup has some itching for a change. They compare Cooper to Tony Dungy, the Bucs coach who was fired because he couldn't win a Super Bowl in Tampa Bay.

But let's look back at what Cooper's Lightning has done. In 2015 it lost in the Cup final in six games to a Blackhawks team that won its third Stanley Cup in six years. And he lost that series with goalie Ben Bishop far less than 100 percent.

In 2016 the Lightning lost the Eastern Conference final in seven games to a Penguins team that went on to win back-to-back Cups. And Cooper had to play almost all that series without Stamkos and Bishop.

And now we have this year. If Lightning GM Steve Yzerman was to wake up tomorrow and make a change, Cooper would have a job by lunch.

Then again, Yzerman is too smart to even think about something that galactically stupid. He knows Cooper is one of the best coaches in the game.

Cooper proved it again Tuesday.

Contact Tom Jones at [email protected] Follow @tomwjones.

Eastern Conference final

Capitals 2, Lightning 1

†(Radio: 970-AM)

Game 1: Capitals 4, Lightning 2

Game 2:†Capitals 6, Lightning 2

Game 3:†Lightning 4, Capitals

Thursday:†at Washington, 8, NBCSN

Saturday:†at Tampa, 7:15 NBC

Monday:†at Washington, 8, NBCSN*

May 23:†at Tampa, 8, NBCSN*
* If necessary

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