BRANDON — He deserves to win the award for NHL coach of the year. He deserved the contract extension he received during this Lightning season of seasons. Coach Jon Cooper earned all that.
Now he has to earn it again.
The sky isn’t falling. It has fallen, hard, on Tampa Bay’s 62-win wonder boys and their wonder coach, a 1-0 hole after an epic first-round Game 1 gag-and-fold against the Blue Jackets on Wednesday.
And the coach has to figure it all out before Game 2 tonight.
That’s the job.
Cooper’s reaction Thursday brimmed with neither mea culpas nor a smidge of panic. He thoroughly downplayed matching wits with his Columbus counterpart.
“The last time I looked, I wasn’t taking the opening draw,” Cooper said. “And I didn’t see ‘Torts’ out there, either. Coaches coach, players play. It’s been like that for 120 years.”
No, Cooper couldn’t score for Nikita Kucherov and Steven Stamkos, who came up empty in the 4-3 loss, just like in last year’s playoffs, when Washington showed the Lightning the door in the East final. Same goes for Brayden Point.
No, Cooper couldn’t keep Victor Hedman and Ryan McDonagh, the team’s best defensemen, from making mistakes that led to Columbus goals, or stop pucks for Andrei Vasilevskiy, who wasn’t bad but has to be better. Cooper couldn’t chip pucks out or win battles on the boards.
But he’s the coach.
It’s his job.
It’s his job to get more out of his team, coach, coax, convince. He might have to juggle lines or matchups for Game 2, though that didn’t seem to be the problem. Mostly he has to reboot his players’ mind-set. Toward that end, Cooper kept them off the ice Thursday. Decompression seemed to be a priority.
Cooper has always considered himself more of a “people manager” than an X’s and O’s guy. But he has won a hundred more NHL games than he has lost, and earlier this season he found himself the longest-tenured coach in the league at six-plus Lightning seasons. That is not an accident. Cooper is good at what he does. And now he has to be just a little better.
He lived Game 1 right along with his team.
Accentuate the positive, discount the negative. The Cooper way.
“We’re Round 1, Game 2,” he said. “The one thing about this group is they have rallied around each other and, as you’ve said, self-corrected themselves. Let’s be honest. This wasn’t a full 60 minutes. It was a little spurt that cost us. We’d have self-corrected that, we’re probably not having this conversation right now, but we didn’t. It’s time to move on.”
Follow all the action on and off the ice
Subscribe to our free Lightning Strikes newsletter
You’re all signed up!
Want more of our free, weekly newsletters in your inbox? Let’s get started.Explore all your options
Last year I began to wonder if then-Capitals coach Barry Trotz was schooling Cooper. But does that mean Trotz was schooled by John Tortorella when Columbus took a 2-0 lead on Washington in last year’s opening round?
Coaches coach, players play.
But it falls on Cooper, one way or another, to pull something more out of his stars heading into Game 2. I don’t know what buttons there are to push. But who knows his guys better than the head guy? It’s just the kind of challenge Cooper might crave.
Here’s his chance remind his players that while they were trying to outskill Columbus, with their hearts thumping in their packed barn, they took too many chances and let Columbus back in.
Cooper bypassed the autopsy Thursday, pushing past what will be a catastrophic loss if the cats keep strophing in Game 2.
“Support your team and draw on some of the experiences in the past and move on,” he said. “I don’t think that was an issue at all. You’ve got to move on. This is it. Has anybody gone 16-0 (in the playoffs)?”
Time to weave a new narrative. Tortorella was a master of that when he was leading the Lightning up the hill. Now it’s Cooper’s turn. He’s not bad at it himself. Remember his striking calm before the Lightning beat the Rangers in Game 7 of the 2015 Eastern Conference final in New York. The team’s confidence flowed from him.
Now he just has to do it again.
Tough racket, hockey coach.
Contact Martin Fennelly at firstname.lastname@example.org or (813) 731-8029. Follow @mjfennelly.