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New Lightning coach Cooper talks playoffs

TAMPA

It didn't seem like much of a stretch when new Lightning coach Jon Cooper said his plan was for the team to make the playoffs — it is the bottom line for any coach — until you realized he was talking about this season.

Note to Cooper: Tampa Bay entered Tuesday three points from the bottom of the league.

Cooper, though, was the coach that led AHL Norfolk on a 28-game winning streak to end the 2011-12 season that culminated in the Admirals claiming the Calder Cup championship.

"So, to hear somebody say the playoffs are history I don't know," Cooper said Tuesday at his introductory news conference at the Tampa Bay Times Forum. "Until the final buzzer goes in the last game of the season, I'm coming to make the playoffs."

Cooper said he even warned general manager Steve Yzerman that if he hired him, "I'm really going to try to screw up your draft pick."

Whether the bravado was for show or sincere was not really the point. More important was Cooper, 45, who will be behind the bench for his first NHL game Friday at the Times Forum against the Devils, was telegraphing to fans and his players how he wants to compete.

At one point, though he prefaced it by saying it's just an analogy, Cooper said his ideal team would be a combination of the 1970s Flyers — remember the Broad Street Bullies? — and the high-octane 1980s Oilers.

In a sense, he had that combination this season with the Lightning's AHL affiliate in Syracuse, N.Y., second in the league with 86 points (39-18-8).

The Crunch's 218 goals are tops and so are its 1,436 penalty minutes. Its 86 fights are second.

That said, "Nobody would call us a goon team," Cooper explained. "We play hard, and that's all I ask, that we play hard and we're hard to play against."

Cooper said he will make changes in how the Lightning plays, but declined to elaborate.

Tampa Bay left wing Cory Conacher, who played last season at Norfolk, and center Tyler Johnson, a call-up this season from Syracuse, said the pace will be quick.

"A little run-and-gun," Conacher said, "a lot of physical play, a lot of swagger on the ice. He likes fast-paced. He likes jumping on their D, being aggressive."

"Quick transitions, aggressive in the offensive and even the defensive zones," Johnson said. "He gives you a lot of room to make the skill plays you need to, and he creates a lot of speed."

Cooper acknowledged that because of Norfolk's deep playoff run last season and this season's NHL lockout, he hasn't been with the Lightning since the September 2011 training camp.

He knows he will have to quickly establish working and personal relationships, something that is even more important with veterans who might note he has no NHL experience.

"But I'm pretty good at reading people and pretty good at getting people to buy in to what we're believing," Cooper said.

His record speaks for itself with titles with St. Louis of the North American Hockey League, Green Bay of United States Hockey League and Norfolk.

"He wouldn't be here if he didn't have a good track record," defenseman Matt Carle said. "If a guy like Steve Yzerman thinks he deserves to be here, why would I question that at all?"

The more pressing question is why someone with a business administration degree from Hofstra University in Hempstead, N.Y., and a law degree from Thomas Cooley Law School in Lansing, Mich., ditched a law practice for a coaching career.

Easy, Cooper said: "Since I left the law practice, I've never looked at a clock in my life."

Yzerman said Cooper always was his choice after he fired Guy Boucher Saturday night, and he shot down rumors he also looked at former Sabres coach Lindy Ruff. Ruff apparently had interest as Yzerman admitted telling him of the decision to hire Cooper.

"He's been in our organization three years," Yzerman said. "He's done a great job. He's going to be an outstanding coach. This is the guy I want to go with."

"Regardless of what happens, when the fans leave this rink they're going to be proud of the team," Cooper said. "There's been a certain type of swagger with the teams I've coached, and you have to have that to win. You respect your opponent but you don't fear them. When you have that attitude with a team, anything is possible."

The way Cooper figures it, even an improbable playoff push.

Damian Cristodero can be reached at cristodero@tampabay.com.

New Lightning coach Cooper talks playoffs 03/26/13 [Last modified: Wednesday, March 27, 2013 10:01am]

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