MONTREAL – Trailing 2-0 in an opening-round series against the Montreal Canadiens is no place that Jon Cooper wants to be. However, that didn’t keep the Tampa Bay Lightning coach from gently poking his opponents prior to game three.
After pointing out that pundits have counted his group out all season long, he noted that Montreal has a recent history of squandering leads in the playoffs.
"We got home ice and didn’t deliver the way clearly we wanted to," Cooper said after Sunday’s morning skate at the Bell Centre. "So now you look in the room at those guys and (say) `What do we have to lose?’ Everyone thinks we’re supposed to lose. Now I’m hearing (we’re) done, (we’ll) be on the golf course by Wednesday, I’ve heard it all. But at some point they’re going to have to do that in front of their fans, try and knock us out.
"I’m sure they’ve never had a 2-0 lead on the road and come back and blown it."
Cooper was likely referencing the 2011 playoffs against Boston, but could also have been alluding to a 2006 series with Carolina or a 1996 series against the New York Rangers. On all three occasions, the Habs won the opening two games on the road but still lost the series.
There have been no signs of vulnerability from Montreal so far this spring. There is no controversy, no unrest, although coach Michel Therrien dipped his toe in the water on Sunday morning when he suggested that his team knows where Lightning forward Ondrej Palat is injured.
Palat missed game two with an undisclosed upper-body injury and was expected to return for game three. "We’ll have to play physically against him," Therrien said.
There are subtle signs of bad blood starting to emerge between teams that basically have no rivalry with each other. On Sunday night, the Habs planned to go with the same lineup for a third straight game and were hoping for another good night from starting goalie Carey Price, who was excellent in game two.
Anders Lindback was expected to get the start for Tampa after being pulled for Kristers Gudlevskis in the third period of Friday night’s game. The expected return of Palat would likely see seventh defenceman Andrej Sustr taken out.
After a good start to the series, the Habs were hoping to take a stranglehold on things in front of their home fans.
"We are playing a very desperate hockey team tonight," forward Brendan Gallagher said. "They are going to come up and throw everything they have at us. For us it’s going to be important that we get the crowd involved early and play a full 60 minutes."
The focus for Tampa was on limiting the number of opportunities against. Montreal scored nine times in the opening two games of this series and, while some of that falls on Lindback, Cooper believes the guys in front of him were even more to blame.
On the first day of training camp, the Lightning made it a goal to be a better defensive team.
"We cut everything down by over half a goal this year on the defensive side of things and went from 28th to (eighth)," Cooper said. "That’s how you do it. It doesn’t change in the playoffs; it actually gets tighter, it gets stingier. … Everything starts from the defensive side of the puck.
"If we look after that end, usually our offence starts to come into play because we’re doing the right things."
The Lightning had a players-only meeting following the loss in game two where a number of the veteran players spoke up. This is a young team – more than three years younger than Montreal on average – and the message was simple: Don’t let this opportunity slip away.
"It’s tough to get to these playoffs," captain Steven Stamkos said. "Guys go their whole careers without getting a chance to win a Stanley Cup, guys go their whole careers without getting a chance to play multiple rounds in these playoffs. We can’t take that for granted, we have to realize how hard it is to get here and just because you’re here this year doesn’t mean you’re going to be there the next year or the year after that.
"We had to put that in perspective for everyone in this room."