Since first taking over as head coach of the Tampa Bay Lightning in March 2013, Jon Cooper has seen just about everything.
He’s experienced first-hand the thrill of winning it all — twice — and the crushing blow of defeat in many forms, from first-round sweeps and Game 7 losses to watching the team across the ice hoist the Cup instead of you.
But this spring brings a new feeling for the back-to-back champs: rest.
“It’s a little different, actually. We’ve had a pretty good run here over the past almost decade and unfortunately I’ve been on the side of the sweep — the bad end — a couple of times, but never on the good end. So, this has been a little different for us,” Cooper said during an appearance on The Jeff Marek Show on Thursday. Cooper’s Lightning needed just four games to close out the Florida Panthers in Round 2, their sweep about as dominant as they come. The Panthers managed just three goals all series against Tampa Bay — but the Lightning didn’t emerge completely unscathed.
“Unlike any other year, probably, at this point, we have not been this banged up from what I can remember in the past,” said Cooper, who has watched many of his players walk down the tunnel to the locker room over the course of the club’s first 11 post-season games, most emerging to return to action a little worse for wear. Most notable among those bumped and bruised is star forward Brayden Point, who was injured during Tampa Bay’s Game 7 victory against the Toronto Maple Leafs. He missed all four of Tampa Bay’s second-round games and it’s unclear whether he’ll be able to return during this run.
"Rest versus rust" is a common debate come playoff time in every sport, but one that's new for Cooper — and as beat up as this group of players is, Cooper still isn’t convinced rest is always the best thing.
“I don’t know if I love having this huge break, just because yes, you get the kind of physical aspect of it to kind of try to heal up as much as you can, but as much as that there’s this mental aspect that you worry about and the edge and being in the fight and all those things that, naturally, you just lose when you have this much time off,” he said. The Lightning returned to practice Thursday after a two-day break following the conclusion of their series against Florida. They could wind up waiting as long as a week between games — should the series between Carolina and the New York Rangers, currently tied 2-2, require seven games, the Lightning won’t know their opponent until Monday night.
Cooper acknowledged, however, that his roster has enough veterans and enough winning experience now to “understand where we are, the magnitude of this situation.”
“These last few years, and even the years that we didn’t win, it’s just kind of all a build up to where we are today,” he said. “So, that mental aspect — there’s no doubt. But the one thing you can’t replicate is getting hit. We skated today, but it’s as no-contact as you can get. Those are the things — making the plays under pressure when somebody’s barreling down on you, you just can’t replicate that stuff. And when you’re in the playoffs and you’re in the fight, that stuff never goes away. That becomes second nature. So, those are the little things, for a coach, you worry about. Not putting your guys through the wear and tear, but also hopefully being able to step back into the ring and have everything go right.”