DENVER - Jon Cooper wasn’t blowing smoke, and he wasn’t trying to light a fire under the two-time defending champions either.
When the head coach of the Tampa Bay Lightning stepped to the podium and said that “the right team won” after the Colorado Avalanche earned a 4-3 overtime victory in Game 1 of the Stanley Cup final, he wasn’t trying to inflate the ego of his opponent either.
This was an experienced and articulate coach feeling the emotion of an outing where his team was badly outplayed at times, yet still found a way to hang around, overcoming a pair of two-goal deficits and got the game to a fourth period before Andre Burakovsky delivered a dagger after another unforced error.
When speaking to reporters via zoom on Thursday morning, Cooper made it clear he was not looking for a psychological edge, he was just speaking the truth.
“I think when I’m speaking to the media, I’m speaking to the media. But I’m a pretty straight-up guy. What I say in the room, I don’t B.S. the guys,” said Cooper. “I told them we had better in us and they know that they have better in us. I’m not (going) to say that in every loss, we’ve got better in us. We’ve played some good games and lost (where) we have better in us when we’ve won, but we’re pretty straightforward with our group.
“There’s no trying to send messages in the media or anything like that. I’m not trying to hide who is in or out of the lineup. This group has been through too much together and the best policy is to be straight up with them and everyone in that room agrees we could have executed better.”
One of the many things we’ve learned about Cooper and the Lightning is that slow starts to a series are not uncommon - and history has shown that hasn’t proved to be an impediment in the race to four victories in a series.
Resilience is a word that gets tossed around freely, but the Lightning embody the definition.
Just last round, this team was down 2-0 in the series to the New York Rangers, then trailed 2-0 in Game 3.
But just when you thought the team that wears the crown was about to relinquish it, not only did they find a way to avoid an 0-3 series deficit, they never lost another game in the series - and they gave up a single goal at five-on-five during the final four contests.
“It’s not about winning Game 1,” said Cooper. “Yeah, would we like to win every single game? There’s no question. But we’ve also started out on the road for all four series. So the fact that we’ve won one of them is kind of a bonus on our side. But it’s about winning the series. Yeah, it sucks we lost Game 1, but let’s turn the page here and let’s see if we can get Game 2. It’s about the series.”
Going into this battle of heavyweights, it was safe to say that each team was about to face its toughest task in terms of dealing with an opponent.
That prediction proved to be accurate in an opener that lived up to the advance billing.
As impressive as the Avalanche was at times, this was not a vintage performance from the Lightning.
The stars on the Avalanche were mostly shining and not just because of their presence on the scoresheet.
Meanwhile, there were some quiet performances from the top guns on the Lightning, though Brayden Point was effective as he returned to the lineup for the first time since suffering a lower-body injury in Game 7 against the Toronto Maple Leafs in the opening round, playing just under 19 minutes and chipping in an assist.
Captain Steven Stamkos was mostly held in check, while top blue-liner Victor Hedman made a couple of uncharacteristic turnovers and occasionally looked out of sorts.
Hedman was also visibly frustrated after taking a hit from Avalanche defenceman Josh Manson in the first period, not surprising when you consider the high check he took from Rangers forward Alexis Lafreniere in Game 6 last round.
When you look at the respective track records, you can expect Stamkos and Hedman to put their stamp on the series before too long.
These are two great leaders and they know exactly what it takes when the stakes are high.
“The mindset is, we're here to win a series and you don't know when that's going to come: four games, five, six, seven, you never know,” Stamkos said after Game 1. “We've done a great job of making adjustments after losses. So we’ll look to do that.”
Lightning goalie Andrei Vasilevskiy wasn’t as sharp as usual early, failing to handle a Mikko Rantanen shot that led to a Gabe Landeskog rebound, allowing a wrister through the five-hole to Valeri Nichushkin.
But Vasilevskiy settled in and made a number of important stops to keep his team within striking distance and allowing them to get to overtime, finishing with 34 saves.
He almost never loses consecutive starts (once in the past 18 playoff games) and being able to lean on your netminder in times like this is a luxury many teams simply don’t have.
Another thing about the Lightning is that we know they’re a tough out.
They’ve made a habit out of absorbing punches, but avoiding a knockout.
That mentality doesn’t change after an overtime loss and the belief remains strong, something which is easier to lean on when you’ve been to the top of the mountain.
It’s a focused and upbeat group, one that’s overcome numerous bumps in the road in the past and isn’t ready to relinquish the belt, at least not without putting up a fight.
“I think that's the point, right? It's not about riding the wave of one game. If this was a best two out of three, well, then maybe our emotions would be a little different,” said Cooper. “But it's a best of seven. And for us, we've been swept, we've swept teams, we've won Game 6 5-4, whatever it is. But it's kind of about getting our feet under us. It's understanding we're playing a different team.
“We can't win the series all in one game, and they've been really good at that. That's taken some time for us to kind of fall into that mindset, but we've really developed that over the years and hopefully one more series we can carry that through and take another step forward in Game 2.”
Cooper is known for his ability to adapt, both within games and within a series.
With an extra day between Games 1 and 2 (set for Saturday at Ball Arena, on Sportsnet at 8 p.m. ET/ 5 p.m. PT), you can be sure he’s going to be looking for an edge - whether that’s tinkering with lines or trying to search for solutions for how to possibly slow down an Avalanche team that often got up to warp speed in the opener.
Cooper was bang-on in his assessment - the Lightning do need to be better if they plan to even this series before it shifts to Florida and avoid another 0-2 hole.
“It wasn’t an effort thing, it was an execution thing and our details in our game, we need to be a hell of a lot better if we’re going to take this team out,” said Cooper. “But did they have that message before I went to the podium? Yes they did.”
Not only did the Lightning get the message. Chances are pretty good that they’re going to respond to it.