Ahead of the first Leafs vs. Lightning matchup of the 2022-23 regular season, Lightning head coach Jon Cooper provided his reflections on last spring’s playoff series and his impressions of this current Leafs team.
When you think back to the series against the Leafs, is there a moment, a game, a player, a play, or a feeling that stands out?
Cooper: I do remember the feeling after Game 7 — that relief or exuberance. There were so many emotions standing on the ice after we won.
I do remember not feeling so good when Brayden Point went down. 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 the series, I just remember it was two good hockey teams that went at it. If you played seven more games, it probably would’ve gone seven more. It was that close.
I am just glad we came out on top.
Do you remember after the second period of Game 6 following the two quick goals by John Tavares that made it 3-2, and you were 20 minutes away from the whole thing being over?
Cooper: I remember everything after that. I remember the moment in the locker room because it was a huge momentum swing. I remember coming back in, and we had nothing going on in the third. And then the two high sticks.
We can debate them all you want. The tough one was that it was really unlucky for Kerfoot. Kucherov scores that goal to tie it. Now it is anybody’s game, but Vasilevskiy put on quite a performance in overtime to give us a chance. We were fortunate to score.
That was a total team effort. Again, it was a team that we somehow found a way. Special teams and goaltending pushed us, and then we got the big one.
It’s weird with those first-round series. You kind of snatch victory out of the jaws of defeat, but then it propels you. You kind of get a swag about you to move on into rounds two, three, and then we almost did it in round four. That was a big part of it: how well the Leafs challenged us.
How much was the Lightning’s experience a factor in such a close series with all of the swings that happened?
Cooper: Experience is an easy scapegoat. In 2015, we had no experience, and we made it all the way to the final, but then I truly believe we lost because of a lack of experience. We got out pro’d by the Chicago Blackhawks, a veteran team.
In our run, did the experience help? Probably, but it is a game of breaks. For the Leafs to maybe not take those penalties, is that experience? I think it was a little bit of unfortunate circumstances that just happened.
Experience comes down to: Did someone turn the puck over in the bad part of the ice? Did panic set in at certain points? I don’t think in Game 7, you could sit here and say there was panic. It was a 2-1 tight game. Both teams had their chances. 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 day is going to end. I wouldn’t say lack of experience was something that hurt them, but maybe it helped us. There is no doubt.
When you do the pre-scout on the Leafs now, are you seeing a different team? Their defensive numbers have vastly improved.
Cooper: I wouldn’t say their numbers were porous in years past. I think that has always been a strength. I think there is probably a little bit of urgency with the team with the injuries on the backend.
That, from experience… I can remember last year when we played the Kings and we could only dress four defensemen. Our defensive game kicked right in. A little bit of urgency.
That might be the case with the Leafs, but I would say the Leafs are a really well-structured team. It seems like this year, regardless of who they play in there — whether it is the goalie or defensemen — they are defending well. You are not seeing any 9-8 games. I am sure the coach is happy about that. Maybe not all of the players, but a defensive mindset is a great foundation to have if you are going to make a run in the playoffs.
The last time we were here against the Leafs in the regular season, we were talking about Auston Matthews scoring 60. You said you wouldn’t be surprised if he scored 70 one day. Mitch Marner is now on an 18-game points streak. What is his ceiling?
Cooper: I don’t know. How many points does Matthews have?
He is right behind him.
Cooper: Exactly. Mitch has just strung them all together in the last 18 games.
There is a dynamic group up there between Mitch, Auston, and Willy. You can’t sleep on Tavares. What a year he is having. Fabulous players.
I am glad they are in our division because you get to watch them a little bit more than normal. They are not the most fun to play against, but I love when you get matchups like this. You have some of the best players of all of our generations here. You get to watch them all on one sheet of ice. Add in the playoff rivalry and all of those things, and I think these are great games to be a part of.