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Fennelly: Jon Cooper, Lightning's magician, hopes another playoff run's no illusion (w/ video)

TAMPA — This is new for him, too.

Lightning coach Jon Cooper is in his 17th season as a hockey coach. He has never missed the playoffs. Not once.

Most of the time, it hasn't been close. No race to get in. Lots of wins. At one point, Cooper was winning minor-league hockey championships every other year. It didn't slow much when Cooper hit the NHL: three playoff appearances in his three full Lightning seasons, including a run to the Stanley Cup final and another to the Eastern Conference final in the past two seasons. All Cooper has done is win.

Now comes the educational experience that is the 2016-17 Lightning, complacency and injuries and trades and more injuries — a disaster that might still be pulled from the fire. The Lightning is three points out of the East's second wild-card spot, clinging to existence. There will be time for analysis and autopsy.

But here's one quick lesson:

"I'd rather be the chased than the chaser," Cooper said.

He has never been in this position.

And he has never missed the playoffs.

The Lightning has overcome other crazed seasons to make the playoffs under Cooper. Other Steven Stamkos injuries. And the Marty St. Louis exit. And last season's exacta: a Stamkos health issue and the Jonathan Drouin minidrama.

But this season has been unrelenting.

"I'm actually proud of the way things have gone," Cooper said. "It's funny. We've gone from a team that was a massive disappointment during the course of the year and we've turned it kind of into we're Cinderella."

All the injuries. The trading away of talent: Bishop, Boyle, Filppula. More injuries. And it all began with a team with Stanley Cup dreams that dreamed away a large chunk of the season to dig itself a deep hole, probably too deep.

Cooper laughed.

"It's the Coyote and the Road Runner," he said.

Meep meep.

"That's our season. We're hoping just to not get splattered against the wall. We're almost there, and then we slide down the wall. But the Coyote, he always comes back. That's how I feel about this team."

Maybe Cooper has rallied, too, coaxing some fight out of his players, some of whom he hardly knows, there has been that much turnover, 37 players used.

"This year I've had to pull more tricks out of the bag, find different ways to motivate and teach, and it's been really good for me," Cooper said. "The problem is, I don't want it to be at the expense of not making the playoffs."

The Lightning might actually be dangerous if it sneaks into the playoffs, particularly if Stamkos returns before the end of the season. There will be no expectations, not like before the season. It could spring a first-round trap.

"I'd like to think you get into the tournament, every team is dangerous," Cooper said. "What we have going for us is we've got a little bit of a pedigree that some other teams don't. We've been down that (playoff) path in the last three years, deep down that path. That's something we can draw on."

The Lightning has 83 points with seven games remaining, including tonight against Detroit at Amalie Arena. The Bolts probably need 11 points over their last seven games, 11 out of 14. They have won three in a row after that horrible loss at home to the Coyotes last week. If they win out, they're in. That would make 10 wins in a row to finish the season.

Sure, nothing to it.

"You know, if we got 11 points, that would give us 94, just three less than last season," Cooper said.

He knows more was expected. Still, he just wanted us to know.

He has never missed the playoffs.

And now he's the chaser.

Meep meep.

Contact Martin Fennelly at mfennelly@tampabay.com or (813) 731-8029. Follow @mjfennelly.

Fennelly: Jon Cooper, Lightning's magician, hopes another playoff run's no illusion (w/ video) 03/29/17 [Last modified: Thursday, March 30, 2017 10:25am]
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