TAMPA – In a game of inches, they’re battling each other for every one of them.
Coaches Jon Cooper, the master puller of strings, and Sheldon Keefe, sick of settling for respect in the handshake line, are ratcheting up the off-ice gamesmanship in a series where one favourable whistle could prove the difference.
The words are getting as sharp as the body checks.
Saturday night, in the wake of Toronto’s 4-3 Game 3 overtime victory, Cooper waxed on about how “shocking” it was to hear the referee blow his whistle before Brayden Point poked a non-goal through Ilya Samsonov’s legs: “You go through the league of quick whistles, that has to be the No. 1 in the league.”
Keefe slyly sandwiched his criticism in compliments, praising the “brilliant play” of Tampa’s stars of “manipulating the officials” by dragging some of the Leafs’ power-play weapons into the penalty box.
“Manipulated the referees? I’m not sure what that means,” Cooper responded Sunday, striking a quizzical look. “But I would say this: When that hit happened, I think everybody watching at home and everybody in the building, including us, thought we were going on the power play.
“Our two best power-play players (Steven Stamkos and Nikita Kucherov), I don’t think they would ever sit there and take themselves off a power play unless they thought something unjust happened.
“Auston Matthews doesn’t kill penalties. That actually worked against us, to be honest. Now, we ended up being shorthanded after that, but I don’t think anybody thought that was going to happen at the time. So, I don’t know, that’s one’s a little different for me.”
Dissecting Rielly’s check on Point as two of the fastest skaters in the series raced toward a dumped-in puck, Cooper said some nice things about Rielly, whom he coached at the 2016 World Cup, but also charged the defenceman with reckless behaviour.
“Well, it looked awful. Morgan, I know him personally. He’s a super, super human being. He’s got a great family. He’s not a dirty player,” Cooper began.
“Was the incident reckless? For sure. And it looked awful. Anytime, regardless of if it’s Brayden Point or whoever, that’s a tough, tough visual. He comes off. Naturally, because he is such a tough kid, when you see that, you’re thinking the worst.”
Cooper said he was amazed that Point returned to the game after undergoing a litany of tests.
“It looked like he was in a car accident, the way he went into that wall. Really scary situation,” Cooper said. “Hopefully, he’s going to be OK to play (Monday) night.”
The Maple Leafs will have an opportunity to seize a two-game series lead for the first time in this era. The organization is in full game-face mode.
Typically, Samsonov — a fun quote, a big reason Toronto stole Game 3, and one of the series’ most intriguing stories — is regularly made available to reporters, particularly after wins.
Yet despite being requested, Samsonov has not spoken publicly since he spilled some honesty and colourful language into the hot mics after Game 2.
Tampa Bay’s Andrei Vasilevskiy last spoke before the series began.
Asked why the Maple Leafs have stopped making Samsonov available to reporters, Keefe responded: “Have you been talking to Vasilevskiy at all through the series?
“Let him just play goal.”