TAMPA — His focus squarely on what’s in front of him, Lightning coach Jon Cooper doesn’t usually have time to look back.
So pardon him for getting nostalgic, as he’s been at times over the past few weeks, as his team closes in on history.
The Lightning are one win away from winning their second straight Stanley Cup and could become the ninth different NHL team to win back-to-back Cups.
That also means that when Tampa Bay hits the ice for Game 4 Monday night in Montreal, it could be the last time this group skates together wearing the bolt on their chest.
The Lightning have been so focused and goal-driven this season, they’re trying to leave time during this run to enjoy the moment.
“You’re around the guys all the time,” Lightning captain Steven Stamkos said. “You get on the road and you’re together, the camaraderie is amazing and you see the sacrifice that every player goes through, whether it’s body-wise or being away from family.
“We are in the finals, we’re in Canada, and we’re back into kind of a bubble life in terms of being at the hotel. So all those different things add up, and you just realize how special a group that we have, and now we want to get the job done just like we did last year.”
After the Game 3 win over the Canadiens, Cooper reminisced about the 10 years he’s known Tyler Johnson, how the center led winning streaks at AHL Norfolk and owned the 2015 postseason with the Lightning, how he always seems to come up big in important moments, like his two-goal performance on Friday.
He’s waxed about how much power forward Alex Killorn, another player he’s coached since their minor-league days, means to this team and how tough it has been for one of the Lightning’s most durable and hard-nosed players to have to sit during the final as the team chases another Cup.
Certainly, history is on their side. Only one team, the 1942 Toronto Maple Leafs, has come back from a 3-0 deficit to win in the final series. And just four teams have won a playoff series after being down 3-0.
Following Game 3, Cooper likened this season to the last day of school in the sense that the same group probably won’t be together next season. The Lightning went into last season with extraordinary cap issues, and it took an injury to Nikita Kucherov and trades for injured players’ contracts to avoid restructuring. They can’t expect that same situation next year.
“I think we all know the realities of the sport,” Cooper said. “Getting over the hump last year and remarkably being able to stick together for one more crack at it, I don’t see the circumstances of what happened this year happening again. I know the players don’t see that. It’s a bond that this group has carried together for the last two years. It’s special. It just doesn’t come around very often. I think the players, they know this. That’s why it doesn’t take a whole ton to motivate this group.”
Hockey is a team sport. Players regularly deflect attention from themselves to the group as a whole.
And while the Lightning have some great individual talent — the best goalie in the game in Andrei Vasilevskiy, one of the most dynamic playmakers in Nikita Kucherov and one of the best scorers in Brayden Point, as well as franchise cornerstones like Steven Stamkos and Victor Hedman — this group could make history not through its bevy of skill, but because it came together as a team.
“It’s a lot of fun,” forward Yanni Gourde said. “We’re very focused. We have a goal in mind, but at the same time we’re enjoying this. Playoff time is the best part of the year, and we’re loving every second of it.”
If the Lightning do win, it will be because of the way they played defense in front of Vasilevskiy, the body shots players like defensemen Ryan McDonagh and Mikhail Sergachev took blocking pucks from getting to the net. It will be because of the Barclay Goodrow, Gourde and Blake Coleman, who have created a new blueprint for how impactful third lines can be. It will be because of the impact of rookies like Ross Colton and 10-year veteran Pat Maroon sharing the same goal of doing dirty work on the fourth line.
“I think it’s one of those things that you understand the situation,” Stamkos said. “So let’s go out and do as best as we can as a group, because most likely in a cap world this group probably isn’t going to play together just like the group from last year. Not everyone could come back.”
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