BUFFALO, N.Y. — Jon Cooper always is careful not to overreact. He’s a former lawyer, so he deals in facts, and he makes moves only after he believes he’s put together a good case. He often lets his players determine the outcome of a game, and he’s extremely tactful about knowing which buttons to push.
So the Lightning coach’s decision to bench the team’s top three forwards — Steven Stamkos, Brayden Point and Nikita Kucherov — for the third period of Saturday’s game against the Sabres was unmistakably calculated and undoubtedly a long time coming.
His team is reeling defensively, and its 5-3 loss at KeyBank Center was its fourth straight and fifth in its past six games. In those losses, the Lightning (37-20-5) allowed an average of more than five goals per game.
Cooper has put trust in his team before. Valleys are common during the 82-game regular-season grind. Cooper has faith that his team will work out the kinks and become sound defensively come playoff time. And they’ve done that, making it to the Stanley Cup final the past three seasons.
But after the Sabres all but put away Saturday’s game with three second-period goals, Cooper had seen enough and ended the afternoon for his big three.
“As coaches, you’ve got to put your team in the best position to win, and 99.9% of the time, those guys give us the best chance to win when they’re on the ice,” Cooper said. “Just felt in the third period they weren’t giving us the best chance to win.”
The Sabres stretched their lead to 5-1 on forward Jeff Skinner’s power-play goal less than a minute into the third period before forward Alex Killorn scored twice to bring the Lightning back to within two.
“This team’s been unbelievable for a decade, and you take the three (Stanley Cup) finals,” Cooper said. “Well, there’s a reason a lot of that’s happened. And we have set a standard here that everybody adheres to, and it’s not pick and choose. It’s everybody. And so, it’s how it was for (Saturday).”
“(Stamkos, Kucherov and Point) are an extremely important part of our team, but for 20 minutes (Saturday), I thought the other guys could get it done, and they almost did.”
Stamkos was a team-worst minus-3, his day ending with a check in the offensive end that led to a rush the other way that resulted in forward Jack Quinn’s goal with 14 seconds left in the second period to give Buffalo a 4-1 lead.
Point, who had a team-high seven shots on goal, was minus-2. He did score the game’s first goal on a power play with 6:32 left in the first period, his team-high 39th goal of the season. Kucherov was minus-1.
Cooper’s benching of the three stars, which came with the Lightning 5-5-4 since the beginning of February, sent a message to the entire locker room.
“Everyone’s just got to be better,” forward Anthony Cirelli said. “Obviously, ‘Coop’ is trying to send a message there, but that goes for the whole team. Each and every single one of us has got to elevate their game and just got to work a little bit harder and be better for a full 60 (minutes).
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“But those (three) guys are a huge part of our team. So we’ll get them (today against the Hurricanes).”
The big three haven’t been the only ones culpable in the defensive struggles. But in the locker room, the top players set the example. Tampa Bay didn’t become a championship team until its best offensive players bought in to playing defense.
For the fourth straight meeting between the teams, a Sabres team that’s one of the most dynamic in the league pulled the Lightning into a high-scoring, back-and-forth game. The teams combined for an average of 10 goals in their three previous meetings, and though the Lightning won two, they didn’t feel good about their defensive effort.
On Saturday, they yielded too many uncontested looks. Whether it was leaving forward Vinnie Hinostroza uncovered in front for a 2-1 lead in the second after the Sabres won a puck battle behind the net, or Kucherov and Stamkos converging on defenseman Mattias Samuelsson in front and leaving forward Tyson Jost open to convert an uncontested backhand from just outside the crease to make it 3-1 in the second, the Lightning looked slow, lost and disinterested in their end.
“It’s just been, like, a weird few weeks,” forward Pat Maroon said. “Even all the games that we’ve been winning, it just hasn’t felt the same.
“I think it’s little, little mistakes that are costing us right now, that are killing us right now. And it’s just one fly-by there and not stopping the house there, not breaking it out, turning pucks over. That stuff’s going to cost you, and (the puck is) going to be in the back of the net before you know it. So it’s easy fixes.”
Contact Eduardo A. Encina at email@example.com. Follow @EddieintheYard.
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