EDMONTON — In Edmonton’s fantasy world, the Art Ross, the Hart and the Norris trophies are all followed sequentially by the Stanley Cup.
In Toronto’s master plan, the spreadsheet spits out a cheat code that magically produces an offensive high-wire act, fabulously concluding with a parade down Bay Street.
That’s how the Tampa Bay Lightning used to approach things too.
“We used to be a team that wasn’t good enough to beat you 3-0. We had to beat you 9-0,” began Jon Cooper, the head coach who for the past seven-plus seasons has stewarded this vessel through the rocky waters of the Eastern Conference. “You’re right about how we used to play in the past. We have an ability to score some pretty flashy goals, there’s no question about that.”
The problem was, the Bolts kept putting together 50-win regular seasons, even reaching a Stanley Cup Final and three Conference Finals — but they could never close the deal. Then, last spring, a Columbus team that had not won a single playoff round in franchise history swept the Lightning out of Round 1.
It was as big a slap in the face as any the National Hockey League has witnessed in decades.
With zero rings and a loooong spring to contemplate, Cooper recalled, “we had to change that attitude.”
It’s that attitude change — and the accumulation of players like Blake Coleman, Barclay Goodrow, Pat Maroon and Zach Bogosian — that corrected the roster and priorities of a Lightning team that has gone from first-round fodder to being three wins away from being crowned Stanley Cup champions.
“What do they say the definition of insanity is? Doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result?” Cooper asked. “We couldn’t do that. You need to have an attitude adjustment, and guys have to buy in. And it starts with your stars. The guys who are used to putting pucks in the net.”
Tampa was, to some degree, just a more mature and well-rounded team than the run ’n’ gun outfits in Toronto and Edmonton, two teams that had their share of regular season success this season before being blasted out in the Qualifying Round. Even with vastly better goaltending in Andrei “Vezina” Vasilevskiy and annual Norris Trophy candidate Victor Hedman on their blue line, Tampa couldn’t win — which tells you how far away the Maple Leafs and Oilers truly are.
“If you play that way — especially when you get to this time of year — bad things are usually going to happen,” Cooper said of the old Bolts. “Experience and being humbled can help right a ship. I truly believe last year’s experience… We’re seeing the fruits of that awful setback last spring.”
It’s obvious to look at the roster adjustments that general manager Julien BriseBois made, adding depth forwards that have made the Lightning grittier, and “slotted everybody into the right spots — including themselves,” according to Cooper.
But remember what the head coach said: “It starts with your stars.”
“Look no further than Nikita Kucherov’s (Game 2), and how he was getting beat up in ways that for anybody it’s hard to come back. All he did was come back and run a powerplay that scored two goals, and be a big part of why we won,” said Cooper. “When guys understand that it’s about what you keep out of your net, and not what you put into (their) net, good things will happen. That’s what’s gone on so far.”
Eventually, for every skilled team, there is going to be a Dallas on the horizon. A big, deep, grinding roster that doesn’t have nearly the same top-end skill of all the aforementioned clubs, but wins games using all the elements that those teams lack.
Tampa has learned through experience that you can’t simply surf along on top of those waters. You have dive in and swim with the sharks eventually.
It’s a movie the Leafs and Oilers should watch.