DENVER — He originally said it back on May 2. First day of the playoffs, first loss, first minute of his first postgame news conference.
The Lightning were blown out 5-0 by the Maple Leafs in Toronto, and Jon Cooper did not look either angry or concerned when assessing the damage.
“Do we have better in us?” Cooper asked rhetorically. “Yes.”
He would use that phrase again. And again. And again. In Toronto. In New York. And now, after Wednesday night’s 4-3 overtime loss to Colorado in Game 1 of the Stanley Cup final in Denver.
“The right team won the game. Give them credit for pulling it out,” Cooper said late Wednesday. “We’ve got better in us, though.”
He has said it so often that it no longer feels casual. Almost as if it’s a part of a team’s DNA. When I asked him Thursday whether it’s a quote for reporters or a message for players, he responded with a chuckle.
“When I’m speaking to the media, I’m speaking to the media,” he said. “But I’m a pretty straight-up guy. What I say in the room? I don’t BS the guys. I’ve told them we have better in us. They know we have better in us.
“This group has been through too much together, and the best policy is to be straight up with them. Everyone in that room agrees we could have executed better. It wasn’t an effort thing; it was an execution thing. Our details in our game need to be a hell of a lot better if we’re going to take this team out.”
This is what sets the Lightning apart. This is how a team wins 11 consecutive series in the postseason.
It’s the difference between a team that dreams of winning the Stanley Cup and a team that plans on winning the Stanley Cup. It’s what allows a team to bounce back after crushing losses. Call it confidence, call it ego, call it brash. More than anything, call it fearless.
The Lightning do not panic when they are behind in a game or behind in a series. That doesn’t mean they always come back and win, because there have been some lopsided losses along the way. But there is a hardness to their resolve that can unnerve lesser teams.
They also have enough self-awareness to recognize when they have been beaten and when they have given a game away. On Wednesday night, it was a little bit of both.
Colorado is a very good team. If the Avalanche win three more games, you can even call them a great team. But the Lightning played so poorly in the first 10 minutes, they were chasing the rest of the night.
“We know (the Avalanche) come hard the first 10 minutes. It was just us kind of triggering their offense a little better than we expected,” forward Pat Maroon said. “When you go back with the puck so many times and you’re not executing, you’re not fast to the puck, they’re going to come at you. This is two fast teams going at it, and we’ve just got to execute a little better.”
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One of these days, the Lightning’s resolve will wear out. Maybe they will lose a step on defense, maybe they will commit the wrong penalty at the wrong moment.
Or maybe they will finally run into a team with just as much speed, just as much skill, and just as much daring. And maybe Colorado is that team.
It certainly seems like the Avalanche startled the Lightning in Game 1 by jumping in front of passes and moving the puck through the neutral zone with spectacular ease.
Officially, the Lightning had two giveaways at the end of regulation. It felt like they had a dozen or more. Passes that might work against lesser teams seemed like they routinely ended up on Colorado’s sticks.
Losing Game 1 is not ideal, but it is also not a death sentence for the Lightning. Since beginning their current stretch of postseason dominance, the Lightning are 6-6 in the opening game of a series.
Some of those losses were brutal, like the 6-2 beatdown by the Rangers last month. Some of those losses were forgettable, like the 2-1 defeat against the Islanders last year.
But all those losses were, in some way, instructive for the Lightning. It showed them what they were up against and what they needed to do.
What did the Lightning learn Wednesday night?
Apparently, that they have better in them.
John Romano can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow @romano_tbtimes.
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