After practice at the Coca-Cola Colesium ahead of Game 1 of the first-round series between the Maple Leafs and Lightning, Jon Cooper discussed his team’s mentality as they try to chase down a three-peat, the challenge facing his team against the Leafs, the atmosphere in Toronto, and how physical he anticipates the series being.

Practice Lines – May 1

Do you have good memories here at Coca-Cola Colesium from your time with Norfolk?

Cooper: Oh my gosh. I had to go find the locker room we went into.  It is not this room. They tucked us in the corner. I remember where we were spraying the champagne. It was a great picture we took with Yzerman, Verbeek, BriseBois, and myself with the Calder Cup. I love being here. I’ll leave it at that.

Did you tap the lucky stanchion?

Cooper: Haha, the stanchion! Kostka’s corner, yeah.

What stands out to you about this matchup against the Leafs?

Cooper: It is probably a little shocking that we have not met — not in my tenure here. We have met other teams in our division multiple times. This is a first for us. Probably a long time coming.

Two similar teams that have been near the top of the standings for a number of years now. I think it is good for hockey. I think these are two established franchises that have been at the top of their game for a decade now or so. It is about time we met in the playoffs.

Fans seem to be expecting this is going to be high scoring with lots of flash and dazzle. Big stars are going to be on the ice. Is that a fair expectation? Might we see more of a defensive battle?

Cooper: You don’t know, but a playoff series, when you play a team a certain number of times, one of the games is bound to be like that. I don’t expect the series to be like that, though. The Leafs play a sound game at both ends of the ice. I hope to say we do, too.

You know how it is when the playoffs come. You usually take one penalty off the board aside. There is a big misnomer out there that the refs put the whistles away. That is not what happens. The players get smarter. The players play the game not to take penalties because they know how important power plays are and vice versa.

That is why I give the refs some credit there. They are looking for the same calls. Players are just more disciplined during this. You can take a couple of power plays off each side. A lot of comes down to a five-on-five game.

Whoever’s team game is rolling the best and stays a little bit more disciplined will have a little bit more of an edge.

Sheldon Keefe was saying he is expecting a physical, borderline violent series here. He is looking at Simmonds and Clifford likely playing Game 1. How do you think that sort of game suits your group?

Cooper: I don’t know. We have kind of been through all of the wars. Rewind the tape to this time last year when we played Florida. I described it as two cars going 100 miles an hour right at each other. Who was going to flinch first?

The first round is always chaos. It is organized chaos. The guys are pumped up. Everybody is jacked. Usually, the teams are somewhat healthy or as healthy as they are going to be in the playoffs. Whatever that extra 5-10% you have inside of you, you get it in the playoffs.

Everybody’s determination goes up with their want to win. What words did he use? Borderline violent? Wow. I think guys have a lot more courage. If that is what makes them that way…

But it should be fun. Let’s take a step away from that and start going through Kucherov, Matthews, Stamkos, Marner, Point, Nylander, Tavares. And then you start going on the backend. These are the stars of the game. I hope people appreciate what these guys do and the war they are going to go through. It should be a lot of fun.

As talented as they are, the Leafs have never been able to get over that first hump. What did it mean for this group when you went through what you did against Columbus, and more importantly, how you reacted the next year, in order to understand what it takes?

Cooper: That probably comes from some of the fact that we had all been together before. Kneejerk reactions are not a staple of our organization.  Did we have to tweak some things? The thing that needed tweaking most was what was between our ears. We had to check our egos at the door.

We pretty much hit every record you could possibly hit. If you hit 62 wins in a season and you get swept, what is the first word that comes to mind? It is embarrassing. You look yourself in the mirror, and say, “Do we really want this to happen? We have the group to do this, but this is what it takes.”

Go rewind the tapes of teams that have won Stanley Cups and see what they look like after a playoff series. That is what we needed to look like. The boys took it to heart.

Give them all the credit. I am just the guy that stands there. Those are the guys who have to go out and do all the work. They made the commitment. I guess we haven’t lost since.

How do you think the team has embraced the pressure and expectations this year going into the playoffs?

Cooper: Are you basing it on the results? We haven’t lost a playoff series since Columbus.

Are guys embracing the idea of going for a three-peat?

Cooper: There is no question, but we tell our guys, “You are not winning the Stanley Cup tomorrow night. That is not where it is going to be won. You have to get through a series first. There is so much more runway after this. It is a marathon.”

You have to understand that if you don’t win this series, you are out. We have been on both sides of this fence. It is about keeping yourself together. There are ebbs and flows. The series never goes your way the whole time. When adversity hits, how are you going to handle it? It hits in so many different ways.

We have had a history here in the last couple of years where we have been able to handle it pretty well. 2019 broke us. We hope we have learned from that.

The other thing: Just because you have gone through it, it doesn’t mean it’s automatically, “Hey, we have done this before.” It is still hard work. That is what the group has been good at. They understand the work they have to put in.

Fighting through adverse times takes work.

Playing in Toronto in the first round, all eyes are going to be on this series.  What are you expecting from Game 1?

Cooper: I am a proud Canadian. My dad grew up as a major Leafs fan. When I was a little kid, I was a Bobby Orr fan, so I was a Bruins fan. We always had our wars. I had to ask him last night who he was cheering for in the series. He thankfully had the right answer.

I am going to date myself, but you grew up watching either the Montreal Canadiens or the Toronto Maple Leafs. Those are two of Canada’s teams. That is why when you go to visiting arenas, those two teams travel so well. They have a rich history of everything that has gone on in their organization.

To play Original Six teams like that — we played Chicago in the finals, the Rangers in the semifinals, Montreal multiple times — there is just something unique about it in such a special way.

Growing up watching from Wendel Clark to Darryl Sittler to Auston Matthews, it is a city that is proud of their hockey and passionate about their hockey — maybe almost over the top. When you are in this game and coaching at the highest level, there is no better place to play than the spot where everybody cares the most. That is why it is great to play Toronto.