Babcock, Cooper trade friendly fire as Lightning unveil super line

NHL insider Chris Johnston joins Shawn McKenzie to get us set for the much-anticipated first meeting of the season between the Maple Leafs and Lightning, which always matters, even if it's early.

TORONTO – We’re only one week into what should be a hotly contested race for the Atlantic Division crown, and already the gamesmanship and urgency has kicked in like a thunderclap.

If the return of Tampa’s all-star centre, Brayden Point, now fully recovered from off-season hip surgery, wasn’t enough to add a jolt of electricity to the season’s first Maple Leafs–Lightning showdown, coach Jon Cooper will roll Point out between reigning Hart Trophy winner Nikita Kucherov and one-time 60-goal scorer Steven Stamkos.

“When you get to play with Pointer and Kuch, it’s pretty exciting,” Stamkos said. “Even more so to have Pointer back, it’s big. He drives the play a lot with his speed. I know he’s been itching to get back in the lineup.”

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That talented trio only combined for a ridiculous 318 points last season, each star cruising past the 40-goal and 90-point plateaus on his own.

But seldom in his romp to the 2018-19 Presidents’ Trophy did Cooper load up his three deadliest offensive weapons on a single unit at even strength.

As a trio, Stamkos-Point-Kucherov only logged 41:46 total over 82 games last season, unsurprisingly dominating shot attempts (59.6%), high-danger chances (60%) and expected goals-for (56.2%) during those rare shifts.

“I think it’ll be interesting to see how they are. They’re good players,” Leafs coach Mike Babcock said Thursday morning, handing out compliments before raising eyebrows.

“I’m not sure there’s enough puck to go around. We can find out.”

Coming from a coach who prefers to spread his creative threats and attach one grinding worker bee to his top units — ask Auston Matthews and Mitch Marner how often they’ve skated 5-on-5 together — it’s a rather, um, pointed pre-game comment.

“Oh, my God. What’s he saying about Tavares, Marner…? Let’s go through their team,” Cooper responds, with a smile, savouring the gamesmanship.

“They should just throw about eight pucks on the ice and see who goes for them.

“There will be a lot of skill out there tonight. Isn’t that what we all love to watch? I appreciate the comment, but right back at him.”

Thursday night’s tilt at Scotiabank Arena should make for as compelling theatre as hockey fans can hope for in early October — Doughty vs. Tkachuk notwithstanding.

These are two titans cut from the same cloth, coming off very different yet very painful Round 1 playoff disappointments, and due to the salary-cap restraints, they’ve been forced to usher in a slew of fresh faces. Now they’re climbing off the dirt, staring up at a mountain of expectations, knowing full well their paths to the peak are likely to intertwine.

“There’s no question there’s a little bit of a burden you carry from last year,” Cooper said. “We’re defending nothing, so let’s go and attack.

“When we’re rolling, teams will say, ‘Oh, my gosh, it feels like there’s six, seven players on the ice.’”

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Tampa and Toronto both pride themselves on speed and skill. They both deploy hide-your-children power plays and, at times, are guilty of relying too heavily on their stud goaltenders to mop up their mess.

You can hear Morgan Rielly using Victor Hedman as the blueprint for the defenceman he wants to become (“You look at the past two and a half years, I would argue that he’s been the best at it,” Rielly says). You can watch Auston Matthews devote practice to obtaining a Stamkos-like one-timer on the power play. And, if you’re a reporter, all you have to do is fill in the gaps between the two head coaches’ choice quotes.

“It’s a big opportunity for you, and you get to find out about your players. All 12 forwards and all six D, your goaltender — you find out about everything,” Babcock said.

“There’s nowhere to hide. It’s real good teams playing.”

The wrinkle here being that Tampa wasn’t real good its last outing, “a collective stinker,” Stamkos says, that saw the Bolts outshot 44-13 in a 4-3 overtime loss to Carolina.

The Lightning never once endured a three-game losing skid during their 62-win scorch through the 2018-19 regular season. The 2018-19 Leafs only suffered two such dips, and their first three-game drought didn’t occur until Feb. 21.

Each side will take a two-game skid into Thursday’s affair, which, according to Stamkos, is the perfect remedy for Sunday’s debacle in Raleigh.

“After you have a tough game like that, to come on the road and play a really good team in Toronto, it’s usually best-case scenario — because you know you have to play a better game if you want to make it a game,” said Stamkos, following a so-called optional morning skate in which every Tampa star participated.

“We know what we have to do in this room. Sometimes we just forget to go do it because we’re falling back to the bad habits of trying to win skilled games.”

Ah, the Lightning and Leafs also share an Achilles heel.

“It’s great to have high octane,” Babcock warns. “It’s fun to watch. Fun to watch, but you’re gone in a hurry. Maybe be less fun to watch, win more often and stay around longer.”

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