After the Tampa Bay Lightning beat the Columbus Blue Jackets a few weeks ago to advance to the second round of the playoffs, Lightning head coach Jon Cooper made his way to the end of the customary handshake line, headed across the ice toward the locker room, and raised his fist up near his face with a tiny but mighty shake, as if he were furtively jangling the contents of a wrapped present.
The real gift that night was the one that had just been delivered by 24-year-old Tampa Bay forward Brayden Point, whose goal five minutes into OT sent Columbus home. (Yet that somehow may not have even been the center’s biggest goal of the series: Point, who over the past two seasons has averaged more than a point per game for the Lightning, had also scored in quintuple overtime of Game 1, ending the fourth-longest hockey game of all time.) Cooper’s gesture was one of celebration, but it also had the look of a pressure release valve letting off a whole lot of steam. A Game 5 win over the Blue Jackets may have been merely a first-round victory in a four-round tournament, but that small step forward shouldered the weight of a whole lot of hectic history.
Last season, the Lightning surged through the standings as the NHL’s top team, winning the Presidents’ Trophy for the league’s best record the way Secretariat won the Belmont Stakes. (They finished with 62 wins; the next-best team won 50.) When the 2019 NHL Awards voting was held last spring, Tampa Bay was represented all over the place: From the blue line (defenseman Victor Hedman was nominated for the Norris Trophy) to behind the bench (Cooper earned a Jack Adams nod) to in net (Andrei Vasilevskiy ultimately won the Vezina) to the tip-top of the sport (Nikita Kucherov, with 128 points, would take home the Hart Trophy as league MVP). Awkwardly, though, in the interim between the voting and the Awards themselves, the Lightning were swept—by those Blue Jackets—in the opening round of the postseason, a rude and abrupt April ending to what was supposed to have been a long and lovely June ride.
Which was why winding up facing Columbus again in August, to kick off this year’s already-bizzaro bubble playoffs just more than a year later, felt like something devised by a reality TV producer. “We had 422 days to think about it,” Cooper quipped that night, once his team had safely won the series and moved beyond the past. “But who’s counting?”
Cooper was 45 when he got his first NHL head-coaching gig with the Lightning; he’s now 53. Eight years doesn’t feel like that long of a time but it’s nevertheless long enough to have made him the NHL coach who has been with his current franchise longer than anyone else. During that time Tampa Bay has been one of the most enviable organizations in the league, with a gorgeous arena in a booming city and a high-octane, constantly-evolving-yet-cohesive roster. But that doesn’t mean things haven’t been rough: In the four-season span leading up to last year’s collapse, the Lightning also lost in the Stanley Cup final (once) and in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference finals (twice).
In the grand scheme of things, all of these were valuable lessons; in the moment, they were unwelcome ones. When a reporter asked Cooper how much pent-up emotion had made its way into his resolute shake of the fist as the Lightning moved on to Round 2 in August, the coach answered: “More than you’ll know … I guess if you saw that, you pretty much know how I felt.” And this past Wednesday night, just over three weeks (and another series win, over the Boston Bruins) later, Cooper was back on the socially distant postgame podium, being asked once more about another of his celebratory reactions. This time, he could offer even less of a description of what everyone watching had already seen. “In reference to after the game,” he said, “that was a blackout moment for me. So you have to tell me what I did.”
What Cooper did, when the Lightning took a 2-0 series lead on the New York Islanders in this Eastern Conference finals, was exhibit another distinct genre of fist-pump. If his earlier motion had been that of a man celebrating an early-round par at his local course, this was closer to someone making eagle at Augusta. With slightly bent knees, Cooper kind of galloped/sashayed across the bench. His arm movements were dramatic and in triplicate; his expletives were lipreadable. He might as well have been up on stage at an air guitar competition, or on a roll at a casino. And can you blame him? The 27-year-old sensation Kucherov’s goal, off a rub-your-eyes pass from defenseman Ryan McDonagh, was an example of everything that can go right for the Lightning—and what’s more, it came at a time when everything was beginning to go wrong.
The Islanders, humbled and hungry following a 8-2 shellacking by the Lightning in Game 1, opened with a goal just over a minute into the game. Shortly thereafter, Tampa Bay forward Alex Killorn was ejected with a major misconduct for boarding. Hedman tied the game at 1-1 late in the first, but the Lightning then suffered a big off-the-scoreboard setback midway through the game, when Point—a first-liner and the playoffs’ leading active points scorer, with points in 13 of his 15 postseason games—gingerly climbed over the boards one last time and retreated to the locker room with an injury. The Lightning already have been playing this entire postseason without their injured captain, Steven Stamkos; now they were down two more influential guys.
With the clock ticking down in regulation, the Lightning seemed poised to begin what would have been their 10th overtime period of this postseason. But in the closing seconds the team surged, getting off several quality shots on the Islanders net. McDonagh pinched aggressively down the boards deep into his team’s offensive zone, and the risk yielded a return. He acquired a loose puck and threaded it across the slot, directly to the most dangerous place on the ice: the blade of Kucherov’s stick. The finisher finished, the fake piped-in crowd noise inside the Edmonton hockey bubble was piped in, the remaining nine seconds elapsed, and on the Lightning bench, Cooper blacked out.
Nikita Kucherov with 7.8 seconds left. Jon Cooper is fired up. pic.twitter.com/xVOo1lNxs9— Brady Trettenero (@BradyTrett) September 10, 2020
On Thursday, Cooper was asked during an off-day press conference about the Lightning’s general manager, Julien BriseBois, who was promoted to the top job after former GM Steve Yzerman decided to retire, and who was nominated this week for the league’s top executive award. Cooper has worked with BriseBois for about a decade, since even before he coached the Lightning; the two of them once collaborated in Tampa Bay’s minor league system and won a title with the Norfolk Admirals. “I think when you’re in a position like that, you have to make tough decisions,” Cooper said. “And there’s no standing on the fence. And Julien doesn’t stand on the fence. He listens, he takes information, and he makes a decision.”
In the wake of last year’s upsetting, humbling finish, one of the biggest decisions BriseBois made was to not make any drastic ones, choosing to treat the sweep as more of a fluke than a major crack in the team’s foundation. When the Lightning began this season with middling success, talk began to heat up about whether it might be time for a coaching change. But BriseBois, who had signed Cooper to a three-year extension in March 2019, didn’t bite. “I wouldn’t say his seat is warm,” he said. Over the Christmas and New Years holidays the Lightning found their stride and went on a 10-game winning streak, and by the trade deadline BriseBois was taking confident swings: trading first-round draft picks for players like Barclay Goodrow and Blake Coleman, whose rugged presence might complement the franchise’s silkier touch.
Over the past year the franchise also has focused intently on shoring up its penalty kill with, for example, emerging Selke-worthy talent like Anthony Cirelli—efforts that ultimately enabled Tampa Bay to even be in the position to win Game 2. The Lightning killed off not only Killorn’s five-minute major early in the game, they also made it through being down 5-on-3 in the third period. And they did this with only nine forwards available: Cooper likes to ice a lineup of 11 forwards and seven defensemen, as opposed to the more typical 12 and six. (By ending the game right at the end of regulation, Kucherov potentially saved himself and his teammates from a frightening amount of ice time.)
During his own press conference on Thursday, Islanders head coach Barry Trotz seemed to be in a decent mood for a man whose team had been handily beaten in one game and who had probably deserved to, but didn’t, win another. He pointed to his experience coaching “a former team”—while he didn’t name them, he meant the Washington Capitals, with whom he won a Stanley Cup in 2018—that had been down 2-0 in one of their playoff rounds on their way to finally winning the title. (The team they were down to? The Columbus Blue Jackets, apparently the NHL’s version of the Labors of Hercules.) But while Trotz may have won a Cup with those Capitals, it’s the Lightning, with their multiple big-time Game 7 losses and their years of being juuust on the cusp of a title, that probably have more in common with that Washington team than this year’s Islanders do.
With their long and deep postseason history, for better and for worse, there would ordinarily be little that the Lightning hadn’t already seen—that is, if this weren’t a global pandemic season being held in a bubble and played constantly on the brink. But even that state of affairs might wind up being to Tampa Bay’s advantage. It’s a lot easier to really and truly take things one game at a time when you’re living through a hockey Groundhog Day. It’s a lot simpler to actually leave the past in the past when you can’t roam the haunted halls of your own home rink. There will still be distractions over the next several weeks, but they will be different ones. There may be more devastating injury news, but when isn’t there? None of the remaining challengers in the NHL playoffs have won a championship more recently than the Lightning, and that happened 16 years ago—another sports era altogether. (To bring things full circle, that team was coached by John Tortorella, the current coach of the Blue Jackets.) So when it comes to this strange season, whichever team winds up winning the Stanley Cup this fall will effectively be hoisting it for the first time. It’s just that one team will have already had way more practice celebrating big victories—and ruing crushing losses—than the others.