TORONTO — Lightning coach Jon Cooper doesn’t need to be reminded about the gravity of the moment, nor do the players inside the Tampa Bay locker room at Scotiabank Arena.
The hockey gods have gifted fans with “a must see” Game 7, Cooper said Saturday. The back-to-back Stanley Cup champion Lightning against the Leafs, the Yankees of the NHL, the team too talented to not have gotten out of the first round since 2004.
The Lightning could parade into Scotiabank Arena with all their trophies and accolades and still be the afterthought here. They’re not from hockey’s home. They’re not Original Six. They’re not the Leafs.
The Sunshine State series was cute. But this is different. Hockey Night in Canada, a 7 p.m. start. The chateaubriand of a three-course day around the league that will include three do-or-die Game 7s.
“These moments don’t come around that often,” Cooper said.
Cooper and his players have done their best to bite their tongues throughout two weeks of questions about Toronto, about how to contain Auston Matthews, about what it’s like to deal with such overwhelming pressure that Toronto faces, without ever chirping, “What about us?”
That moment might have come before Game 7, when Cooper was asked how the Lightning are embracing the moment — and not just the magnitude of tonight, but about their bigger mission of making history as the first team in four decades to win three straight Stanley Cups.
Those who follow the Lightning know Cooper is a master motivator. As much as he’s a stickler for details on the ice and is an expert of X’s and O’s, his best talent might be how he’s able to walk into a room, gauge it and say exactly what’s needed to get the most out of his players.
And before Game 7, Cooper finished his pregame media access with a Lombardian statement that should give every Lightning fan from here to Florida confidence that this team will be ready for tonight.
Cooper talked about the fear of losing being sometimes his greatest motivator. But he made it clear that there’s no complacency in the Lightning room. Not here, not now.
“I don’t want anybody to sit here and say, ‘Well, it is easier (to deal with losing) because we won two Cups. If the Leafs get the best of us tonight, it’s OK.’ That’s BS. We’re standing here on the cusp of greatness. And why the hell wouldn’t you charge through that door?
“So ... let’s go get this, let’s go attack this. If fear is the motivator, then so be it. I don’t want there to be any excuse. If it doesn’t go well for us tonight and us be like, ‘Oh, it’s OK, we’ve won two,’ that’d be unacceptable.”
• • •
Sign up for Lightning Strikes, a weekly newsletter from Bolts beat writer Eduardo A. Encina that brings you closer to the ice.