On an off-day on Tuesday, Lightning head coach Jon Cooper discussed letting Games 3 and 4 slip away, the performance of Andrei Vasilevskiy in the series, Erik Cernak’s status, and the challenge of attempting to come back against the Leafs in this series.
Lineup Notes – April 25
Erik Cernak will not play Game 5.
— luke fox (@lukefoxjukebox) April 25, 2023
What do you think the team has to do to get back in this series?
Cooper: We have to leave the game with more goals on the board than them. That’s what needs to happen. I don’t know what else to tell you. We have liked a lot of our game.
Obviously, the third period, we would probably like to have it back, but regardless of how you get to overtime, you’d like to at least take one of those. We didn’t take either.
It is close, just not quite good enough. We just have to be a little bit better.
Nine of your last 10 trips to overtime in the playoffs have been losses. Is that just a bad string of circumstances, or maybe a regression to the mean from what the team did in 2020?
Cooper: I didn’t know that stat. But what was our overtime record before that if you take the last 10 before that? My gut feeling is that if you look up what happened before that, it probably is semi-close to reversed.
It is funny. In the year 2021 — our second Cup year — we were 0-4 in overtime. Imagine what our record would have been in the playoffs if we eked out the reverse of that. In the Cup year before that, we had a semi-decent overtime record.
To have the success we have had in the playoffs the last many, many years, and to have that record in overtime, it shows either how unlucky we have been of late or how good our team actually is to be able to hang around and go to three Finals when there have been that many overtime losses.
What are your overall impressions of Andrei Vasilevskiy’s performance in the series? Is it unrealistic for us to expect him to dazzle night in and night out?
Cooper: I don’t know what has been wrong with Vasilevskiy’s performance. If I look through this series, the Marner goal in Game 2 is one he for sure wants to have back. After that, realistically, what are we saying he has done wrong besides making all the saves he is supposed to?
If you look at last night, who is stopping the Acciari tip? Nobody is stopping that.
Who is stopping the Matthews’ tip? Nobody is stopping that.
The Rielly goal — the third one — we came off of our check and completed screened our goalie.
The winning goal — Kerfoot’s — who is stopping that?
Take any goalie — the best ones in the history of the game — they are not stopping those. Those are unbelievable, 100% chance of going in kind of goals. It is just tough that they are all happening in one game. Those great tips don’t always happen at the same time.
The onus is on the guys in front of him to try to do a little better, and in the end, give Toronto some of the credit for some of the plays they are making. But if you took all of Toronto’s game — their last 10 games — I bet they don’t have all of those types of goals.
It is something we have to be better at, and hopefully Toronto [regresses] a little bit in that department.
How impactful do you think Erik Cernak’s absence has been in the series when it comes to protecting leads and clearing the front of the net?
Cooper: The reason you are asking the question is because you know the answer. Cernak is a three-time Finalist with us. He has two Cups. He is a big part of our penalty kill. He is a big part of defending. He is an instrumental part of our D core that plays big minutes and plays those shutdown minutes.
Not having him has hurt. Now, not having Cernak — is that going to prevent us from giving up the goals we gave up in the third period? I can’t sit here and say that. Would he have helped in the 6-on-5 in Game 3? Maybe, but maybe we were in a change rotation and he couldn’t be out there.
It is hard to sit here and say, “If this or if that.” In the totality of things, would we like to have Erik Cernak in our lineup as a top-four defenseman for us? Yes. If you go to any team and pluck — as a defender — their top-two defender for a series, I don’t think the team would be too happy about it.
Again, we have played well enough to — I think — not be down 3-1. We have gotten in our own way at some of these points. But would it be better to have Cernak back? For sure.
Is he considered day-to-day still, or are there a lot of obstacles for him to get back any time soon?
Cooper: I am not going to take him off day-to-day until I am told otherwise.
You were down 3-1 to Colorado in the Cup Finals last year. You didn’t get all the way back in that series, but can you draw on that to understand the task that is in front of you?
Cooper: No question. You just have to be careful. That was last year. It is a different team.
Moving forward here, the guys who played in that know that feeling. They know the preparation. They know the mindset. They know what we have to do. They went into a really hostile environment in the final to win a game.
There is no question, but there are a lot of guys who weren’t in that game. It is up to our group and our leaders to guide these guys along in those situations.
The one thing is: We have had plenty of success in Toronto’s home arena in the playoffs. We are confident we can do that again. There are no guarantees, naturally, but we have confidence in ourselves.
Is it an advantage or disadvantage to have two days off now?
Cooper: I don’t know. That is a better question to ask after the game.
Personally, I like it. I am not dwelling on what happened last night. Everybody gets to take a breath. We gave the guys a day off today.
We have played a ton of hockey. It is good for them to be back with their family. I am glad we are not traveling today. We get to travel tomorrow.
Give the players a day off in between games, and they will be in a different mindset — a more positive mindset, in my opinion — when we get back at it tomorrow.
Plus, we have had kind of a tough little string here physically for whatever reason. Another extra day is definitely going to help our guys.
The puck possession has been good for your team, and there have been plenty of chances. What does it take to minimize the Leafs from jamming up the front of the net so much?
Cooper: The progression of the Leafs over the last few years is that they have gotten better in the defensive zone. A lot of their quote-unquote skilled guys have bought in and played some more defense for them. I think they have brought in some guys, too, who defend. Anyway, they have done a good job of that.
That said, we have had ample chances — more than I thought we might get. We have scored plenty of goals to win games. It is what is happening in our end of the ice that is a little bit more of the issue for me.
If you are scoring four, three, and seven goals a game, you have to win some of these games. We have only won one of them. You have to look yourself in the mirror at your end of the ice to fix that.
There was so much talk about the group of forwards — the closers — you would put on at the end of games to close things out. You have lost a couple of those players. What is the challenge in finding that same type of group? What does it take to have that mentality in those situations?
Cooper: I don’t know. A lot of those guys that were there last year to close things out are still here this year.
For the most part, we have always closed out these games. You are not going to close them all out.
Are we missing some big pieces? There is no doubt, but again, we haven’t had these guys all year, and at some point, you have to turn the page on that. We have our group that has done really well. When the spotlight is on in a big game like Game 3, we didn’t get it done.
I think that might’ve been the first time all year that’s happened to us where we had a goal lead and had a team come up and tie us. Hey, the timing sucked, but our guys have done a heck of a job at closing games out.