TAMPA — Head coach Jon Cooper is focused on the task at hand during the Lightning’s trip to Montreal for the Stanley Cup final — preparing his team for what he hopes will be a second straight NHL championship.
But he’s not unaware that coaching at the Bell Centre Friday and Monday will also resurface memories of his previous experiences inside the Canadiens’ home arena, both special and painful.
Cooper, a Prince George, British Columbia, native, grew up watching Hockey Night in Canada featuring the Canadiens and the Toronto Maple Leafs, saying you cheered for one team and detested the other.
Since then, the NHL’s longest-tenured coach has created memories of his own at the Bell Centre. He was behind the bench for his first career playoff series when the Lightning were swept by the Canadiens in the conference quarterfinals in 2014.
Tampa Bay returned the following year, defeating Montreal in the conference semifinals on its way to the franchise’s second Stanley Cup final appearance, eventually losing to Chicago.
Now, the Canadiens are the only team standing between the Lightning and a second straight Stanley Cup title. Tampa Bay can clinch in Montreal with victories in Games 3 and 4 Friday and Monday.
Friday’s game will be Tampa Bay’s first at the Bell Centre since Jan. 2, 2020. But it’s not just Cooper’s personal history that makes Montreal’s home ice special — it’s the deep history rooted in an Original Six arena.
“(Over the years, I’ve appreciated) everything; the way the seats go up, how dark it is, the banners, the history, the presentation, the fans, the passion,” Cooper said. “It all culminates into, you walk in there and you’re like, ‘Wow, something special has happened in this place for some time.’”
Cooper and his team have a chance to add to that history.
The Lightning have a two-game series lead after Wednesday’s 3-1 win in Game 2. The Canadiens will be desperate to bounce back in Games 3-4 to avoid watching Tampa Bay skate with the Cup on Montreal’s home ice.
The chance to coach in an arena with such a rich history is a “pinch yourself” kind of moment, Cooper said. Though he doesn’t expect to see many Lightning jerseys in the crowd of 3,500, he’s excited just the same.
“When you’re in there,” Cooper said, “you feel like you’re part of something special.”
Who: Lightning at Canadiens, Game 3
When: Friday at 8 p.m.
Where: Montreal, Quebec, at the Bell Centre
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