How Jon Cooper and the Lightning became great in-series adjusters

The Hockey Central panel break down the Tampa Bay Lighting's Game 4 win over the New York Rangers, discussing the clutch performances from Ondrej Palat, Zach Bogosian and Erik Cernak, and the mounting injury concerns for the Rangers.

For all the complaining fans and media do about players being boring interviews, it gets lost that about a dozen of the league’s coaches are absolute soundbite machines. That includes the two men at the helms of the Tampa Bay Lightning and New York Rangers, Jon Cooper and Gerard Gallant respectively. After Game 4 they delivered a few more Grade A quips, a couple of which reminded us that this coaching thing, it ain’t rocket surgery.

Jon Cooper on the Rangers' very good power play:

“I spoke to Captain Obvious today, he said ‘Keep ‘em off the power play and it’s probably gonna help your game.’”

A handy guy to have on staff, that Captain Obvious.

Meanwhile Gallant fielded this question:

“Is there anything you can tell Mika (Zibanejad) in terms of being more effective against the Cirelli line?”

To which he answered:

“I tell him that all the time, be more effective Mika. Seriously, ask the question better than that. You don’t think I talk to our players? What are you gonna do, they’re gonna work hard, Cirelli is gonna try to shut them down the best he can. Everybody has a checking line, that’s the way it goes, you gotta battle through stuff. But Mika’s a professional hockey league player, and he’s a real good one at that.”

I’d like to stress that the answer came off lighter than this reads in plain text, but still, the point from both guys is that there’s only so much you can do at this point. Do the obvious things better than your opposition. Guys know what their jobs are, it’s too late in the year for major systems overhauls, and so once you’ve made your lineup decisions the next biggest thing is figuring out in-game deployment of those bodies, and then a host of tinkering.

Simple as that, right?

I think Cooper, though, likes to present that front more than he lives it. The attitude he displays here belies how much he really does behind the scenes to alter the look of his team as series drag on. He’s not afraid to make changes before they seem mandatory and obvious, while opposing coaches have been more likely to get a few games into a series, become comfortable with what they expect from their opposition, then proceed to get bowled over.

“Stay outta the box” aside, the Bolts' penalty kill has changed, having their D flex out more on Zibanejad, who spent the first couple games of the series pounding away one-timers from the flank like he was Alex Ovechkin. But Cooper also made the decision to move Steven Stamkos to centre in hopes of finding more offence, which has been exactly what he’s got, with the Stamkos groups creating a ton of chances and a few goals since. Cooper’s toggled between dressing 11 D and 7 forwards to 12 and 6 as well, making up for how thin the forward group has seemed the second someone is hurt or half-hobbled.

The point is, Cooper is always doing something, and this was a topic Brian Engblom – Lightning analyst for Bally Sports and two-time Cup champ – talked about on our radio show today.

To summarize, Engblom thought the Lightning (justifiably) got a reputation from the Toronto and Florida series as this great shot-blocking and defensive team, and started out the Rangers series trying to be that same group (after all, it had been working), but it led to them being on their heels. Every series has its different flavour and the Rangers have a unique style. Cooper and the Lightning recognized you can’t just keep saying “Well, we have to just play our game,” and rather came out of their shell to play a more offensive version of their game, which has translated to less puck time for the Rangers' stars.

With Cooper and the Lightning, it seems they spend a couple games in the feeling out process of a series to see what their opponent is about and how the matchup is going to work, and then they make that first adjustment or two, usually somewhere around Game 3 or 4. They’ve consistently found something mid-series that’s put a crack in the opposing defence, freeing up Tampa’s offence, which suddenly breaks a game wide open for a clean win amidst the stress of all the other games.

At that point, the opposition is left to react to whatever the adjustment was, counter-adjust, and it starts to feel like they’re chasing. Maybe that counter-adjustment works for a game, but Cooper is always the one dictating the next chess move after banking the one “easy” one. In this series, without home ice, getting to use Cirelli as a pure checker in Games 3 and 4 has befuddled the Rangers offence. We’ll see how Tampa opts to adjust on the road in Game 5.

If you go back through the Bolts' two Cup runs and their 10 post-season wins this season, that trend of finding something with a mid-series tweak is clear.

In 2019 Tampa won the Presidents' Trophy with a billion points, drew the wild card Blue Jackets, and when it started going bad, they didn’t do enough to adjust to figure it out, instead confident in what they’d done all year. Inconceivably, they lost (and not just lost, they got swept, which had to be humbling). The next year they drew Columbus again in Round 1, and make no mistake, those games were knock-down, drag-out, one-goal wins that forced the Lightning to play a different style than their preference. They won on a willingness to adapt to the type of series they were in and find their own way through. Since then, the willingness to change and adapt has shown itself in every series around Game 3 or 4, where they adjust first and score a bunch, and win a game going away, almost always by at least three goals.

Maybe it’s a little selective to cherry-pick a Game 3 here or a Game 5 there, but the point is this: for some reason, in the middle of otherwise hotly contested series, there always seems to be a game where things go how it seems like they were meant to go, with Tampa Bay outscoring their opponent on average 5.4 to 1.7, one of those “thanks for coming out but we’re better” showings.

For the first time in this Eastern Conference Final, you could feel that vibe.

The Rangers still have a lot going for them here. They were up in the series when that game happened to them, which means it’s only level now. They’ve got the type of goaltender who can steal a “deserved” win or two, even if the Bolts find their stride. They’ve got home ice advantage, which should nullify the Cirelli matchup if it goes seven. It’s not impossible they take this series yet.

But in Game 4 it started to feel like the Lightning had found “it” again, like their adjustments left the Rangers chasing just a little, and that the onus is on Gerrard Gallant and New York to counterpunch, to adjust to the adjustment, and to find their own way back in.

If the plan is just to leave it to the professionals like Mika Zibanejad – because remember this isn’t all that complicated, as both coaches have told us – without making some changes, they’ll be in big trouble. Simply. Cooper may dumb down a lot of things in the media, and often there’s justification in doing so. But make no mistake about it, the Lightning have been tweaking, as has become their MO over the years, and we saw those effects in Game 4.

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