Jon Cooper talks Maple Leafs ghosts, ‘unlucky’ Kerfoot, epic playoff series

Toronto Maple Leafs' head coach Sheldon Keefe and defenceman duo Mark Giordano and Wayne Simmonds discuss the challenge of facing off against Tampa Bay Lightning's Steven Stamkos who just reached 1,000 career points.

TAMPA — The last time the Toronto Maple Leafs skated on this ice, sat in this visitors’ room and walked these corridors, they were one goal away from busting their ghosts.

And while head coach Sheldon Keefe is framing his club’s return to Tampa as “just another regular-season game,” his opponent, Jon Cooper, is happy to reminisce over what was at the most entertaining and anguishing first-round duel of the 2022 playoffs.

To the victor goes the luxury of reliving the battle.

On Saturday morning, Cooper held court with a few reporters to discuss the emotions of that seven-game epic and what he sees in this new edition of the Maple Leafs.

Here are Coach Cooper’s words, edited lightly for clarity and brevity.

“I do remember the feeling after Game 7. Just that relief or exuberance. There were so many emotions standing on the ice after we’d won. I do remember not feeling so good when Brayden Point went down (with a leg injury in Game 7). So, that wasn’t great. I remember not feeling so great after the 5-0 shellacking in Game 1. I do remember feeling great about Nick Paul‘s performance in Game 7. There are a lot of things I remember about that series.

“At the end of that series, I just remember there were two good hockey teams that went at it. And if you played seven more games, it probably would’ve gone seven more. It was that close. So, I’m just glad we were on top.”

The Maple Leafs held a 3-2 lead in the series and in Game 6 heading into the third period here at Amalie Arena. They had the defending champs on the ropes …

“I remember everything after that. I remember the moment in the locker room (during the second intermission), because that was a huge momentum swing. I remember coming back in, we had nothing going on in the third — and then the two high-sticks. And we can debate them all you want. It was really unlucky for (Alexander) Kerfoot, what happened. And Kuch (Nikita Kucherov) gets that power-play goal to tie it. Now it’s anybody’s game.

“(Andrei) Vasilevskiy put on quite a performance in overtime to give us that chance, and then we’re fortunate to score. So, that was a total team effort. We somehow found a way. Special teams got us a goal, our goaltender pushed us and then we got the big one.”

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Tampa went on to sweep the Panthers in Round 2, rallied to oust the Rangers in the conference final, then gave the Avalanche a real test in the Stanley Cup final …

“It’s weird about those first-round series. You kinda snatch victory out of the jaws of defeat, but then it propels you. You kind of get a swag about you to move on in Rounds 2, 3, and we almost did it in Round 4. But that was a big part of how well the Leafs challenged us.”

Is it as simple as saying the Lightning’s postseason experience was the difference versus Toronto?

“Experience? It’s an easy scapegoat. In 2015, we had zero experience and made it all the way to the final. But then I truly believe we lost because of lack of experience. We got out-pro’d by the Chicago Blackhawks, a veteran team.

“Can I say in our run, experience helped? Probably. But it’s a game of breaks, like I said. For the Leafs to maybe not take those penalties, was that experience? I don’t know. I think it was a little bit of some unfortunate circumstances that just happened. Experience comes down to: Did somebody turn the puck over in the bad part of the ice? Did panic set in at certain points? And I don’t think, in Game 7, you can sit here and say there was panic. It was a 2-1 tight game. Both teams had their chances. Just more went in for us than them.

“As we all know, the Leafs are fighting some ghosts of hockey past, not being able to get out of the first round. But, eventually, that is going to end. And I wouldn’t say lack of experience was something that hurt them. But maybe it helped us. There’s no doubt.”

Is Cooper seeing a more defensively committed Maple Leafs group this season?

“I wouldn’t say their defensive numbers were porous in years past. That’s always been a strength, I think. There’s probably a little urgency there on the team with the injuries they’ve had on the back end. I can remember last year we played the Kings, and we could only dress four defencemen. Our defensive game kicked right in. A little bit of that is urgency, and that may be a little bit of the case with the Leafs.

“But I’ve always considered the Leafs a really well-structured team, and it looks like this year — regardless of whom they plug in there, whether it’s the goalie or the defencemen — they’re defending well. You’re not seeing any 9-8 games. And I’m sure the coach is happy about that. Maybe not all the players. But a defensive mindset. What great foundation to have if you’re going to make some run in the playoffs.”

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