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Jones: It's time for Lightning's Jon Cooper to make a difference

Tonight, Jon Cooper and the Lightning get a second chance at home — and third in all — to finish the series against Montreal.
Tonight, Jon Cooper and the Lightning get a second chance at home — and third in all — to finish the series against Montreal.
Published May 12, 2015

BRANDON

He doesn't wear goalie pads. He doesn't have a C stitched on his chest or the No. 77 slapped on his back.

The most important person for the Lightning's success tonight in a pretty-close-to-a-must-win Game 6 against the Canadiens is not goalie Ben Bishop or leading scorer Steven Stamkos or top defenseman Victor Hedman.

In fact, he doesn't wear skates or sit on a bench. He wears a suit and stands behind it.

This is Jon Cooper's time.

He was hired a little more than two years ago for moments exactly like tonight.

Now we get to find out what the Lightning coach is made of. We get to see if the hottest young coach in hockey can live up to that reputation. Now we'll see if he can summon up his motivational and tactical skills to help the Lightning snap its two-game losing streak and once and for all close out this series against the just-won't-die Canadiens.

Now we will see if Cooper can coach when coaching matters most.

Do-or-die game for the Lightning? Sure seems so. It's hard to see the Lightning going back to Montreal and winning Game 7. That means Cooper better figure out a way for the Lightning to win tonight.

Not play hard. Not be close. Not give it its all.

Win.

Normally, it's all about the players. They are the ones out on the ice who decide outcomes, and certainly the Lightning could use a couple of goals from Stamkos, maybe a helper or two from Hedman and a bunch of big-time saves from Bishop.

But a Lightning team that played with swagger all season long is suddenly facing a crisis of confidence after losing two in a row. A Lightning team that has played with speed and quick transition has been slowed by the drudgery of the postseason.

That's where the coach comes in. A coach of a team that has momentarily lost its way has to figure out how to prepare it mentally and physically. It's up to Cooper to get the Lightning's heads out of the wrong places, and its legs and sticks in the right ones.

It's one thing to navigate a team through the dog days or guide it out of a regular-season slump. It's quite another to figure out how to take a team that is scuffling and get it to play its best game of the season in the most critical game of the postseason.

"This is why we're in this; this is why I coach,'' Cooper said. "The competitive aspect and going in and trying to draw up a plan and get a group of guys together to go in and beat another team excites the hell out of me. It excites our guys. That's what we're going to try and do. We're going to try and win a hockey game.''

This isn't a bunch of coach-speak from Cooper. Unlike the last series against Detroit when he appeared more serious and distant, Cooper does seem to be having a good time in this series against Montreal. He isn't crazy about playing a sixth game tonight when his team could have wrapped this thing up in four, but Cooper is embracing the challenge of playing the Canadiens.

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"Yes, because we're still playing,'' Cooper said. "There are 30 teams in the league and we're one of six still playing. That's a lot of fun.''

Last season, Cooper and the Lightning were just satisfied to make the playoffs and expectations were lowered when Bishop was lost before the first-round sweep to the Canadiens. Last year was supposed to be merely the first step in a long process that had the Lightning improving season after season.

Losing in the first round of this postseason was not a part of that blueprint and when the Lightning fell behind 3 games to 2 against Detroit, Cooper wasn't having a whole lot of fun. Perhaps that is what led to Cooper not being himself, at least around the media.

Once the Lightning survived, however, Cooper turned back into the coach he has been most of the time — relaxed, comfortable, cracking jokes and enjoying the moment.

"For us, he's always the same,'' said forward J.T. Brown, who also played for Cooper in the minors. "He's the same guy in that he always believes in what we have here.''

There will be some strategic things Cooper needs to map out for tonight. Mainly, he needs to figure out how to create more scoring opportunities for a team that has had too few of them for most of this series.

But more than that, Cooper's role is to get the Lightning to play desperate hockey without putting pressure on it.

It's like saying, "Boys, this is the most important game of the year and you must play like it … but don't be nervous.''

Doesn't sound easy, which is why Cooper plans on no big pep talks.

"They've heard lots of pep talks,'' Cooper said. "We've got a good group. I know it was a tough loss the other night and we lost in the last four minutes of the game, but … there was a difference after we lost Game 5. There was a genuine (ticked)-off attitude after we lost Game 5. So I could just tell that there was nothing that really needed to be said. Guys were angry and it has carried over. I like our mojo right now.''

Let's see if he likes their mojo after tonight's game. Much of that will depend on how well Cooper has done his job.