Ahead of Game 3 of the first-round series between the Maple Leafs and Lightning, Tampa head coach Jon Cooper discussed the special teams battle in the series, the matchup game, adjustments after two games, John Tavares’ play for the Leafs, Corey Perry’s contributions, and much more.
How do you approach preparation tactically after the first two games?
Cooper: It is a playoff series. It is the first to win four. Tactically, I am pretty sure both coaching staffs know what they are doing. The players know what to expect.
In this series, special teams have been the story. It has been well-documented when you have 48 hours between games to pick it all apart. They’re saying, “We can’t put Tampa on the power play.” We are sitting there saying, “We can’t put Toronto on the power play.”
Discipline does come into play. We made some minor adjustments in the game. I am sure Toronto is going to do the same thing. In the end, it is about playing the game between the whistles, and understanding the series is a best-of-seven that is now a best-of-five.
Our team cannot come back here and say, “Just because we have the crowd behind us now, we can take a breath, exhale, and think we are going to be okay.” That will be shame on us if that is the attitude we have coming into tonight’s game. I would expect one heck of an urgent Toronto team after what happened to them in Game 2 — very much like how we were after what happened in Game 1.
We will see. Usually, these odd-numbered games — Games 3 and 5 — in series are pretty pivotal games. This one is not as pivotal as a Game 5, but it’s pretty darn close.
Any lineup changes at all?
What has your sense been of Steven Stamkos’ game through two games in the series?
Cooper: To be honest, our power play stunk in Game 1. It was outstanding in Game 2. He is a big part of that. He has a big assignment there any time you have to chase #34 around the ice all night.
I think we have done a pretty good job with [Matthews]. I know he has some points. He made a great play on their first goal and scored the 5-on-3 goal, but if you look at the entirety of the series, tell me who is rocking it from either team. It is not the way the series has gone.
You can sit here and say, “The star players haven’t scored a ton at five-on-five,” but maybe they have checked. The series is 1-1. Guys are all contributing in their own ways, but they all like to score. I am sure you will start seeing that as the series wears on.
Nobody has played more playoff games than Ryan McDonagh since he has been in the league. What is it about him and how he goes about his business that makes him available while playing at a high level?
Cooper: He keeps himself in shape. He is a pro. Always look for guys whose skating is their biggest attribute because they can play longer minutes. He doesn’t labour around the ice. He is an extreme competitor.
Most of all, he is a gamer. Go through last year’s playoff run. I always say, if you could throw out three or four guys to win the Conn Smythe, he was for sure one of them. Vasi was deserving, but the next guy in line might have been him because of how he plays all around the ice in the big moments.
Mac is a stabilizer. When stuff is going south, McDonagh stabilizes it. He rights the ship. He is just an outstanding, outstanding player.
Are you surprised by the frequency of special teams through two games?
Cooper: You’re really only focused on your own series, and then I see on Wednesday night that there were 41 power plays — I read that somewhere — in the four games. That is a lot at playoff time.
Don’t mistake this for me saying it is the refs’ fault. Usually, in these situations, the players’ heightened awareness takes the penalties [down]. It is not like the refs are looking for things. Maybe there are a couple in there where you could probably let go, but I don’t know. I think it is on the players to curb their enthusiasm.
Was there a turning point for you with Cal Foote where he started to earn more trust from the coaching staff in the second half of the season?
Cooper: He had a tough start coming in, right? He got hurt in the summer, and he couldn’t train. He comes in, and he couldn’t even start training camp with us. That puts you behind.
If it wasn’t for the injuries, he is probably not in the lineup. We had so many injuries on the backend where guys got injured for long periods of time, which kept him in. I thought he had to take the start of the year to the third of the year to get in shape and get himself going. He then started improving.
His game, his poise, and his playmaking just got better with minutes. It was the fact that he was hurt, couldn’t participate in camp, and he was behind. That is why he started slow. He has picked it up and is playing well for us.
How would you describe the threat John Tavares poses?
Cooper: John Tavares is John Tavares. First of all, he is a pain in the ass in the faceoff circle because he wins so many. They are always starting with the puck. He is gritty in the sense that he has that really good stick. Anywhere within six feet of the net, Tavares might get a stick on it and might make a play. He is very, very dangerous in those areas. He is a smart player.
These questions start coming up, “What about this player or what about this player?” Give me one player that has been shining in the five-on-five area. Both teams are checking. Stammer is checking. Kuch is checking. Point, Matthews — everybody is checking.
You watch Matthews go into the corner in the d-zone. He is pounding guys, racing out, and blocking shots. I am not saying these guys don’t do it in the 82 games, but in game 68, are guys doing that all the time? I can speak for our guys in saying they’re not.
When you are checking and you are used to scoring, sometimes it goes, “What is wrong with this player?” Well, there is nothing really wrong. You hope they score a few goals, but they are preventing goals as well.
Special teams have been the story of this series. It is hard to really comment on guys. I just think everybody is checking. Everybody is gaming this series out.
You’ve gone against Corey Perry before. Now he is on your team, and he scores the big goal in Game 2. How nice is it to look down the bench and see #10 on your side?
Cooper: We lost some players and we gained some players. He has been a hell of an add for us. If I look at what he ended up at statistically at the end of this year, that is icing on the cake. Bringing him in for what he brings to our locker room and his pedigree was as advertised. His on-ice product has been better than I’d imagined.
That is just typical him. Big moments, big times? Perry is there.
There is almost a goaltending crisis going on in the NHL right now. There are teams playing second or third-stringers, and guys are getting hurt every night. Have you ever seen a year like this?
Cooper: It was weird. It happened to us last year. We saw three Florida goalies in the first round. In the second round, who did we play? Carolina. We saw two. Against the Islanders, we saw two. We were seeing them last year.
This is my feeling: The more teams you put in the league, the more goaltenders that are in the league. When you expand — I am probably going to get in trouble for saying this — the league is a little bit diluted. There are more guys in there.
I can’t say why the injuries [happen]. That is a bit of a hiccup. Some of the players that are out have had histories of injuries. That probably adds to it. The guys that haven’t, at times, you can look and maybe say, “Was this guy overplayed or not?”
I can’t sit here and say for sure, but it is the first time we have played 82 games in two years. I think maybe that has something to do with it. It is odd.
I look no further than Carolina. I am not watching the series, but I am seeing these poor goalies getting knocked out for whatever reason.
I don’t have the answer. I don’t know what is going on. You just hope it doesn’t happen to you.