Sunday, January 21, 2018
Tampa Bay Lightning

Lightning-Canadiens playoff series has been a blur

MONTREAL

Hold on. Wait a second. Stop!

Just give us a doggone moment, will you?

If you're a Lightning fan, isn't that what you're thinking right now?

Throw out the first three games. Give us a do-over. Let's start these playoffs over again.

This time, you swear, you'll be ready.

Well, that's exactly what Lightning coach Jon Cooper is thinking, too.

"It's unbelievable how fast everything happens," Cooper said.

Cooper paused. "What day is it?" he asked.

Today is Tuesday. Less than a week ago Lightning players were getting ready for Game 1 with dreams of a Stanley Cup skating through their heads.

"It's 0-0 and it's the excitement of the playoffs and everything is going on," Cooper said. "And in five short days, you're down 0-3. That's how fast it happens."

What the heck happened? How did it happen? When did it happen?

All of it just bleeds together in a blur.

An overtime loss. Another loss. A controversial loss.

It all feels like one game that was played just last night.

Someone hit the fast-forward button and now that they've hit "play," the Lightning season is on the brink.

One more loss and the season is over. It feels like that loss will come tonight. It's just the sense one gets.

Cooper made a case for how the Lightning could easily be up 2-1 in the series.

Instead, the long season could be in its final hour.

That's what makes it all so depressing.

"I'm sick to my stomach that we're down 0-3," Cooper said. "You really can't let the playoffs sneak up on you. We were prepared. We were ready. But that's the one thing — I just can't believe how fast everything goes."

What's even more nauseating is to think just how far this team has come.

The Lightning gathered in September for training camp and no one thought it would make much noise this season. It went through injury, adversity and turmoil and, somehow, finished with one of the best records in hockey. It had home-ice advantage for this series.

No one realistically was thinking Stanley Cup. The Lightning isn't quite ready for that. But being swept in the first round? That was crazy talk, even after the Lightning lost starting goalie Ben Bishop before the playoffs.

"I thought we'd be sitting here (in the playoffs)," Cooper said. "I didn't think we'd be sitting here down 0-3."

Now that a sweep is realistic, if not likely, you can't help but think, gee, after everything that has happened, after all the Lightning has gone through, after everything it has overcome, the season is going to end like this?

"That's the worst part," Cooper said. "All this work to get to this spot and all of a sudden you're almost looking in a rearview mirror, like where did that road go?"

In some ways, it's just doesn't seem right. While it might not deserve better in this series, the 2013-14 Lightning does deserve better than going out so quietly. It's better than this.

There will be plenty of time later to dissect the season. Right now, Cooper is just trying to find a way to extend the season one more day, one more game. He isn't giving up, but he also isn't a fool. He puts on a brave front.

"If we win the game, Montreal has to get back on a plane," Cooper said. "They don't want to do that. We're getting back on a plane no matter what."

Cooper is still boiling about that controversial call that waved off what would have been a go-ahead goal for the Lightning late in the second period of Game 3. But he knows griping about it now does his team no good. There's a fine line between sticking up for your team and giving it a might-as-well-give-up excuse to quit.

He did not make his team practice Monday. Instead, he had a meeting.

"No Knute Rockne speeches," Cooper said.

The Lord's Prayer might have been his best approach.

Right now, he seems out of answers. The Lightning played its best game of the series in Sunday's Game 3 loss. It's hard to find an area where the Lightning can play better. Maybe the players need a little more NHL seasoning. Maybe Cooper, too.

"It is a complete what-have-you-done-for-me-lately business," Cooper said. "If people want to question myself or things that I've done, that's okay."

But, Cooper said, don't criticize his players. They've done their best, he says.

"Whatever we do, we want to make sure that the fans that bleed blue-and-white and follow our team and appreciate our team — don't cheat them," Cooper said. "Don't make them feel disappointed. Make them feel proud. … That comes from a team that plays with effort, determination, passion. That's what circles the wagons. … People want to be proud of their team and it's through our effort that makes people proud."

That's all he wants from them. If they're going to go out, go out the right way.

They could go out tonight.

Hard to believe it could happen that fast.

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