AMPA, Fla. — Jon Cooper has been making business trips to Montreal for so long that he once scratched Nikita Kucherov for two playoff games at the Bell Centre.
It was in 2014 at the end of Kucherov’s first NHL season and during Cooper’s first taste of the Stanley Cup Playoffs, and it’s a pretty good reminder of how long these Tampa Bay Lightning have flown and grown together.
And yet they boarded a flight here Thursday morning for a trip unlike all of the others that came before it. Ahead 2-0 in the Stanley Cup Final, they flew north to Montreal with the possibility of making the return trip home carrying a pretty shiny piece of carry-on luggage.
That’s not to suggest the Lightning are taking anything for granted, particularly after the strong pushback the Montreal Canadiens brought in Game 2. It would be dangerous to assume this will be a short series. But even against a respected opponent, the situation can’t be completely ignored: Tampa needs two wins and it has two games to play at the Bell Centre on Friday and Monday night.
Adding to the anticipation is the reverence Cooper has for the environment they’re entering. The Bell Centre opened in 1996 and was built with steep seating just like its predecessor, the Montreal Forum, creating a unique feeling for those on the ice. And Game 3 of this series will be the first ever played under its roof in the Stanley Cup Final.
When asked what he likes and appreciates about the Bell Centre, a building Cooper has previously described as his favourite road destination in the NHL, he replied: “Everything.”
“Like just the way the seats go up, how dark it is, the banners, the history, the presentation, the fans, the passion,” said Cooper. “You walk in there and you’re like ‘Wow something special has happened in this place for some time.’
“It just has that feel.”
In the early years of the NHL, when Montreal dominated a six-team league, it enjoyed a decided home-ice advantage. The 1989 Calgary Flames were the only visiting team ever to clinch a Stanley Cup Final at the Forum.
It’s a different league today and the ghosts have long since retired.
Plus the Lightning have acquitted themselves quite nicely away from the comforts of home, spending 65 straight days inside the Toronto and Edmonton bubbles on the way to winning the Stanley Cup last September and going 6-3 on the road so far during this playoff run.
They will be trying to keep their minds in small places now. They had a dominant Game 1 victory and relied on Andrei Vasilevskiy’s brilliance and a couple of big plays in transition to win against the run of play on Wednesday. Montreal threw a punch in Game 2, though, even if it didn’t quite land.
“They pushed hard last night. They were all over us for most of the game,” said Lightning forward Anthony Cirelli. “They defend well, they play a fast game, they’re all over you. Same with the Islanders [last round] and similar to Dallas [in last year’s Cup Final], they’re always in your face and they’re always on top of you.”
It’s made for some quirky numbers early in this series, with Montreal holding an edge in even-strength shots (51-41), shot attempts (97-74) and expected goals (3.69-3.17), according to naturalstattrick.com, while Tampa is ahead 7-1 on the scoreboard during those minutes.
“It’s hard to play perfect hockey every single night,” said Cooper. “Like there are nights that you’re going to be off or the puck’s not going to go your way. It’s like how you adapt to that or how you fight through that and when some guys were fighting it a little bit [in Game 2], you know, they found different ways to contribute.
“And that’s what we needed for the win and we got it.”
You won’t find many teams who are as consistently on top of their game as this version of the Lightning, which hasn’t even dropped two straight in the playoffs since 2019.
That’s partly what makes this a road trip for dreamers. They’re doers. Or “gamers,” as Cooper is fond of saying. They are close to finishing the job.
And they will put the blinders on in Montreal because the NHL protocols require them to maintain a strict bubble after crossing the border without observing a quarantine.
“That's the irony right?” said Cooper. “Just last year at this time, we’re in the exact same spot: Confined in a hotel room. You know like the whole bubble circumstances have come full circle again and it's crazy that we’re back in it again, but it’s something we're most definitely comfortable with.”
Basically, the only small hint of disappointment comes from the fact the Quebec government denied the Canadiens request to increase capacity at the Bell Centre to 10,500. So it’ll be a more intimate affair with 3,500 fans in attendance.
Cooper was raised in Prince George, B.C., but says he “lived for Saturday nights” when he could watch the games on “Hockey Night in Canada.” He is old enough to remember the great Canadiens teams of the 1970’s and now he’s living real-time hockey history himself.
“You know, you almost, it’s like a pinch-yourself moment a bit that you have an opportunity to coach in that building and be a part of that environment of how much history and memories and books have been written about that franchise,” said Cooper. “So I know the people in there won’t be cheering for us, but I’m sure excited to be a part of it.”