TORONTO – Jon Cooper couldn’t help but smirk a little as he twisted the knife.
"I guess they could play with one puck," deadpanned the Tampa Bay Lightning head coach.
If Cooper had been holding a mic, he would be within his rights to drop it and walk off.
The coach had, for the first time for the duration of a full game, thrown his three best players over the boards at once and just watched them zig, zag, burst and one-time their way to a video-game-esque 11 combined points en route to a 7-3 thrashing of the division-rival Toronto Maple Leafs.
Skill meet skill.
Speed meet speed.
Hockey meet fun.
Cooper dealt his foil, Mike Babcock, a seldom-deployed super line featuring MVP Nikita Kucherov, Steven "60 Goals" Stamkos and Brayden Point, the latter making his return from hip surgery and his debut under a new $20.25-million contract. Cooper had promised pre-game to charge full steam ahead.
After the morning skate, Leafs coach Mike Babcock considered his opponent’s frontloading approach and said, "I’m not sure there’s enough puck to go around."
Hence, Cooper’s post-game zinger, which followed the announcement of the game’s three stars — Point, Stamkos and Kucherov — to an arena full of fans that had long been emptying out after it became apparent they were witnessing the home side’s third consecutive blown-lead loss.
"All three of them were outstanding. They were on the puck all night," Cooper said. "It was a lot of fun to watch."
Unless, of course, you’re Babcock.
"I thought it was going to be a hell of a game, and I didn’t think it was," the Leafs coach said.
"They looked quicker, better, more organized – say whatever you want – more skilled, whatever you want. We didn’t give ourselves a chance."
Of all the teams you could name, there may be only one the Maple Leafs would prefer not to engage in a run-and-gun river hockey duel to the death.
The East’s two most explosive offences delivered early and often. The stars set the Jumbotron alight.
In addition to Tampa’s Big 3, Toronto top-sixers Auston Matthews, John Tavares and Andreas Johnsson each recorded a goal within the first 20 minutes. But arguably the prettiest effort belonged to rejuvenated Tampa blue-liner Kevin Shattenkirk, who dangled both Morgan Rielly and an under-siege Frederik Andersen on a nifty drive to the crease.
The wild first frame alone featured four nail-biting power plays, seven goals and 17 scoring chances.
"This is the time of year you want to work on your game defensively and protect your own net," Rielly had said pre-game.
It’s safe to consider that work still in progress.
While the action settled into a rhythm more calming to a coach’s heartrate, the Lightning’s best players outshone Toronto’s to take Round 1 of the regular-season series — while drilling home the notion that Leafs-Bolts is the playoff series hockey fans deserve.
"After that crazy first period, we settled down and we defended really well. Those guys are a skilled team,” Stamkos said. “So if we can control the pace of the play, you saw what happened. We can shut really elite offensive teams down by skating and competing.
"It’s becoming that rivalry for us in the Atlantic Division."
Off-season surgery wasn’t mandatory for Point. He could’ve avoided the knife and pushed through pain and discomfort, but he opted to get his hip fixed even if it meant missing training camp and the first week of the season.
You wouldn’t know it from Point’s tenacity and pace. His line’s responsibility in the D-zone also earned praise, as Tampa’s top unit controlled 59.4per cent of the shot attempts at even strength. (Toronto’s Tavares line, by comparison, finished at 43.5 per cent.)
"He’s been skating the past couple weeks with us looking like he’s ready. We’ve been bugging the trainers to get him in the lineup. He’s got a special gift. When you have the compete he has with the speed, he’s an elite player in this league," Stamkos said.
"It’s game-changing speed. It’s up there with Connor McDavid, I would say, in terms of when he gets it at a standstill, it’s a couple crossovers and he’s gone. It just creates so much space. Teams, it puts them on their heels."
Cooper’s formation of the super line drove the bus in this one, pushing Toronto’s losing skid to three games — and chasing Andersen from the crease in the process.
The 2018-19 Leafs, you may recall, didn’t suffer their first three-game losing streak until Feb. 21.
Considering both clubs are still adjusting to a wave of new personnel and will be judged not on one crazy night in October but on whatever follows, Thursday’s loose affair – while wildly entertaining — should hardly be indicative of the final product.
The first two weeks of the season are about discovering what works, what doesn’t, who belongs with whom, and, occasionally, getting a sharp reminder that, no, you don’t quite yet boast the greatest offence in hockey.
"That’s what October is for," Matthews said. "It’s kind of a weird month."
Cooper is using this time to sprinkle some fresh ideas, fire off a one-liner, and to ease in a superstar by surrounding him with same.
The Maple Leafs, suddenly a pedestrian 2-2-1, will attempt to find a sense of normalcy.
"It wasn’t like any of the other games we’ve been in," Babcock said.
"We’ve got to clean this up and get back at ‘er. We play Detroit on Saturday."