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Lightning had harsh lessons along the way to the conference final

John Romano | Two months into the regular season, the Lightning were basically a .500 team. One high profile benching later, they finally turned the corner.
Tampa Bay Lightning forward Nikita Kucherov had to find out the hard way that coach Jon Cooper was serious about taking unnecessary risks with the lead in the 2019-20 season.
Tampa Bay Lightning forward Nikita Kucherov had to find out the hard way that coach Jon Cooper was serious about taking unnecessary risks with the lead in the 2019-20 season. [ DIRK SHADD | Times ]
Published Sep. 5, 2020

There is no switch to be flipped, and no script to be followed.

A hockey team does not simply change its identity from dazzling one day, to gritty the next. The transformation is more organic and gradual, with plenty of small signposts along the way.

Like, for instance, the day the Lightning told Nikita Kucherov to sit his butt down.

It seems like forever since Kucherov was benched by coach Jon Cooper in the middle of a December game and it’s probably largely forgotten in the Tampa Bay locker room. But if you’re looking for a moment that helped solidify what the Lightning have become, that particular episode fits nicely on the timeline.

Related: The Lightning have been here before, but look a lot different

The Lightning were practically a .500 team clinging to a one-goal lead against Ottawa when Kucherov took an unnecessary risk that led to a game-tying goal. It was exactly the type of careless play that Cooper had been preaching about since the players had arrived in training camp three months earlier. And at that particular moment, he’d had enough.

So Cooper pulled the league’s reigning MVP early in the third period, and sat him for the entire overtime.

At the time, it seemed like a gutsy decision and the subsequent success has not changed that risk. Cooper was in danger of losing the devotion of his moody goal scorer but, at the same time, he showed every other player that the same strict standards would be applied to everyone.

The Lightning went into that game with a 16-12-3 record.

Since then, they have gone 37-12-3, including the postseason.

Did that decision change the course of a season? Certainly not by itself. Cooper has said the first days of training camp were the real turning point. Others might suggest the spring acquisitions of Blake Coleman, Barclay Goodrow and Zach Bogosian created the biggest change.

Related: Lightning’s Zach Bogosian makes impact in first career playoff run

But it didn’t hurt to hammer home the point that Cooper was not going to tolerate the same slick-and-quick style that had worked so well in the 2018-19 regular season, but doomed the Lightning in the postseason.

“From talking to players from the past who have been here for years, they never recognized that if you play the right way and do the little things that makes yourself, as a team and individual, have success, good results are going to happen,” said forward Pat Maroon, who was asked the biggest growth he had seen in the team since joining in the off-season.

“We are all committed right now, we are all playing smart, playing smart with the puck, and I think in the past they weren’t playing smart with the puck. I think that’s a good sign moving forward when your best players are doing it, and then it trickles down to the other three lines and you see they’re doing the right things, it’s going to have a huge effect on the whole team.”

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Cooper had made the point in the preseason that careless penalties had to be eliminated, and that the mindset of being aggressive offensively at the expense of protecting a lead would not be tolerated.

That message may have been heard in training camp, but it took a little time for habits to change and attitudes to adjust.

Through those first 31 games, the Lightning held opponents to two goals or fewer 35.4 percent of the time. The rest of the regular season, that percentage increased to 48.5. In 13 postseason games, it is up to 61.4 percent.

Cooper has called those first two months of the season a growing period while waiting for players to understand what was expected and to recognize that it was for the greater good.

“Anytime you’re changing the mental makeup of your group, I don’t want to call them anxious moments, but there’s going to be some trying times,” Cooper said. “The big thing was we didn’t have to beat a team 6-0 or 7-0. Winning 1-0 or 2-0 would do. We always had that attitude, ‘Let’s keep scoring, scoring, scoring.’ I’ve said many times, it’s what you keep out of the net, not what you put in the net.

“That’s really where we had to have our growth.”

Individually, there may have been some costs. Both Kucherov and Point scored 41 goals in 2018-19. Neither was on a 40-goal pace when this season was shut down in March.

But the willingness to take a foot off the pedal for the sake of playing a more disciplined style has become evident in the postseason. The Lightning are 6-1 in one-goal games in the first two rounds, including four overtime victories.

“People are just buying into the system,” Maroon said. “Buying into playing the right way.”

John Romano can be reached at jromano@tamapbay.com. Follow @romano_tbtimes.