Sunday, June 24, 2018
Tampa Bay Lightning

Jon Cooper might be Lightning's ace vs. Red Wings

TAMPA — Just a skosh. Just a smidgen.

That's the difference between the Lightning and Red Wings, which is to say there's hardly any noticeable difference at all.

A mere four points is all that separated the two teams during the regular season. Only one goal separated the two in Wednesday's Game 1 of their first-round playoff series, a Lightning 3-2 victory. Just one game separated the two in last year's opening-round, seven-game series won by Tampa Bay.

So as we head into tonight's Game 2, you look for any little discrepancy to predict which team is going to survive this series.

Well, there might be two areas where the Lightning has an advantage.

One is in goal, where the Lightning's Ben Bishop gets the nod over Detroit's Jimmy Howard. That's not meant to disrespect Howard because Bishop might get the nod over every goalie in the NHL with the possible exception of the Caps' Braden Holtby. (And even that is debatable.)

The other area is a little more subjective, but the Lightning might have an edge behind the bench, where Tampa Bay's Jon Cooper will be coaching his 32nd NHL playoff game compared to Detroit's Jeff Blashill, who will be coaching his second.

Does coaching really make that much of a difference?

Consider this: Last season, the Lightning was the league's best offensive team. It was a clear favorite against the Red Wings. Simply put, the Lightning was the better team. And yet it was extended to seven games. It was outplayed and, truth be told, probably deserved to lose to a lesser-talented Red Wings team.

How did Detroit nearly pull off the upset? What made it such a tough out?

Coaching. It's not unreasonable to believe that the reason Detroit made it such a close series was because of the masterful job turned in by veteran coach Mike Babcock to slow Tampa Bay.

This isn't to say he outcoached Cooper in that series, but he did squeeze every ounce of talent, every last drop of energy, every single piece of strategy to turn what should have been a comfortable series for the Lightning into a seven-game nail-biter.

The Lightning is playing this series without top players Steven Stamkos and Anton Stralman. That hurts, certainly. But the Red Wings are playing this series without Babcock, who left after last season to coach the Maple Leafs. That hurts, definitely.

Now let's be clear about this: Blashill is a solid coach. He learned his trade under Babcock. He preaches the same things as Babcock. He coaches like Babcock, without the jerk gene that Babcock carries. He even sounds like Babcock, leading to the nickname of "Blabcock."

He has extensive minor-league experience, beating a Cooper-coached team back in the old junior days. And, in all fairness and as we've already established, there isn't much difference between the team he is coaching and the team Cooper is coaching.

So this isn't about Cooper coaching circles around his old coaching buddy.

But it is about how far Cooper has come since in arriving in Tampa Bay at the end of the 2012-13 season. He had never won an NHL playoff game until a year ago. Then he took the Lightning to within two victories of the Stanley Cup.

So, you would have to believe that Cooper's experience at this level at this time of year must be worth something. It just has to.

Look at all he has done. Since taking over the Lightning, he has guided his team through controversy (Jonathan Drouin and Marty St. Louis soap operas) and injury (two to Stamkos, Stralman) and yet never panicked.

Even shorthanded in this series, the Lightning looked like a prepared team in Game 1, having long accepted the fact that they will be missing Stamkos and Stralman. Give credit for that to Cooper.

The Lightning just went out and played. Well.

"The thing I've learned is that, once the playoffs start, you have to remember that it's still just a hockey game," Cooper said.

And just because it's the playoffs doesn't mean you have to re-invent the wheel after every game.

"If you're on the winning end and you're the home team," Cooper said, "you're probably not thinking as much."

The Lightning was on the winning end and it was the home team, so don't expect much in the way of changes. Maybe some tinkering to cut down on Detroit's scoring chances, but that's about it.

"There's not too much we want to change," forward J.T. Brown said. "We know the X's and O's. We've been doing it for 82 games now. It's not a whole lot of changes that have to be made."

Just do what you do and try to do it a little better. That's where Cooper comes in.

He broke up the Triplets line of Tyler Johnson, Ondrej Palat and Nikita Kucherov. So what happened? Johnson played with Alex Killorn, who scored the winning goal in Game 1 after Kucherov scored a pair. He and associate coach Rick Bowness have figured out a way to patch the defense back together without Stralman.

Will Blashill and the Red Wings make adjustments for Game 2? Surely. Will Cooper and the Lightning be ready for it?

Based on what we've seen from Cooper: Surely.

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