To suggest he was relieved would be inaccurate, because he knows there’s still plenty of work to be done.
But ask Jon Cooper about the latest test his club just passed and the Tampa Bay Lightning coach is quick to point out its magnitude.
“I’ve been very fortunate to coach in a few playoffs now and those are two of the toughest rounds we’ve ever faced,” said Cooper following a five-game series win over the Central division-leading Carolina Hurricanes, capped off by a 2-0 road victory on Tuesday.
“It was a hell of a grind to get out of this division.”
On paper, the Lightning sure didn’t make it look that way.
After finishing off their upstart state rivals Florida Panthers in six, they made quick work of the league’s third-place finisher with three road wins in a building that witnessed just three regulation setbacks all season long.
But don’t be fooled – every game against Carolina was a grind.
Every game could have gone either way, but it was the defending champs whose experience, depth and poise wound up being the difference. Throw in world-class netminding and a power play operating at 41 per cent, and it’s easy to see why the Lightning are heavy favourites to roll past the winner of the Bruins/Islanders series next.
This team has come an awful long way since an opening-round sweep by Columbus made the 2019 Presidents' Trophy champions a punching bag during that summer’s NHL Awards show. They haven’t lost a series since, and when you look at how they’re constructed, one wonders how they can possibly be stopped from repeating.
“We’ve got a lot of confidence in our group,” said Brayden Point, whose game-winning goal was his eighth of the playoffs, putting him on pace to eclipse his tourney-leading 14 from a year earlier. “I think we had a pretty good regular season where we were kind of building to this. We got some guys back in the lineup that definitely helped. It’s just a belief in our group. We’ve got four lines, solid defence and great goaltending. But this is not the end goal – there’s still so much work to be done. We can’t be too high here.”
Those players who returned to the lineup in time for the playoffs just so happen to be a former Hart Trophy winner (Nikita Kucherov) and a former Rocket Richard Trophy winner (Steven Stamkos).
It meant a former top-six fixture like Tyler Johnson was suddenly a fourth-line luxury alongside Pat Maroon, who's gunning for his third-straight Cup.
On Tuesday, they took their turn being difference-makers with a solid game, capped by a third-period insurance marker from rookie linemate Ross Colton. Earlier, Maroon drew the penalty that led to Point's opening goal.
Fresh off completing his fourth-straight season atop the NHL wins column, Andrei Vasilevskiy made 29 saves in the shutout, marking the third-straight series he’s clinched with a goose egg. His brilliance was on full display early in the second period of a scoreless game when a spectacular glove save robbed Vincent Trochek on a 2-on-1 while the Canes were short-handed.
Forty seconds later, the puck was in the back of Carolina’s cage, courtesy of a nifty backhand-to-forehand-to-backhand move by Point in tight.
“The power play was huge for us in these playoffs and sometimes mistakes are going to happen and that was one of them,” said Vasilevskiy of the game-changing minute. “I just tried to get across as fast as possible. (Trochek) made a good shot and I tried to react. It was a knuckleball and I got it with my glove. After that save we scored – we helped each other.”
That’s what these Bolts do – they work as a unit that allows the big boys to take charge with impressive regularity, while also being able to rely on their depth charges on other nights. Their coach knows what a luxury that is, while others refer to it as downright daunting.
With crowds theoretically becoming more and more a factor in these playoffs, the Lightning are now 5-1 in hostile environs.
“The road is a tough place to win, you’ve got to tip your hat to the guys – they won three games in this building and that’s not easy,” said Cooper.
“It’s leadership, but I think the big thing is experience. We’ve been down this road. There’s a formula in place and you need the players to execute it. I’m proud of their effort.”