If Tampa Bay Lightning general manager Steve Yzerman was attempting to spark his underachieving club with a bold coaching change, the plan has gotten off to a solid start.
New coach Jon Cooper is setting the bar pretty high, too, and seems more than prepared for the job as he makes his debut Friday night against the visiting New Jersey Devils.
Prior to Sunday’s 3-2 loss to Winnipeg that marked the team’s third consecutive defeat, Yzerman fired coach Guy Boucher after two-plus seasons with the Lightning in danger of missing the playoffs for the second straight year.
Tampa Bay (14-18-1), though, played one of its better games of the season Tuesday while Cooper watched from an executive suite, beating Buffalo 2-1 as Steven Stamkos and Martin St. Louis each finished with a goal and an assist.
Stamkos leads the league with 23 goals while St. Louis ranks second with 34 assists, and the stars are a couple of the many reasons Cooper believes he can help turn the team into a winner.
“There’s a certain type of swagger with the teams I’ve coached and you have to have that to win,” said Cooper, who coached Tampa Bay’s minor-league affiliate Syracuse to an AHL-best 39-18-8 mark prior to being promoted. “I think a big reason I’ve had a lot of success in the past is that we’ve all believed in each other.
“We’re all in this together. When the fans leave the rink they are going to be proud of our team.”
Cooper isn’t just hoping to win a few games and finish the regular season on a positive note. He believes the Lightning reaching the postseason is a legitimate goal.
“Until the final buzzer goes in the last game of the season, I’m coming here to make the playoffs,” Cooper said. “When (Yzerman) offered me the job I said, ‘Are you sure you want to do this? Because if you do this I’m going to try to screw up your draft (position).’”
New Jersey, which holds one of the Eastern Conference’s final playoffs spots, is one team Tampa Bay is chasing. The Devils (15-11-7) had won two straight before falling 3-2 in a shootout to Ottawa on Monday to open a stretch of three straight road games.
It also marked the first contest they played without Ilya Kovalchuk who will be out at least two weeks with a shoulder injury suffered in Saturday’s 2-1 win over Florida.
“It was a gutsy effort by us,” coach Peter DeBoer said. “I don’t look at any points as disappointing. I thought our guys played their hearts out and deserved better, but we’ll take the point and keep moving forward here.”
Martin Brodeur seems back to full strength, making 12 saves Monday in his third game after missing 13 with a back injury. He’s 7-1-2 with a 1.68 goals-against average over his last 10 starts, including making 17 saves in a 4-2 win over Tampa Bay on Feb. 7.
Leading scorer Patrik Elias had a goal and two assists in that contest and also scored in a 5-2 loss to the Lightning on March 5, giving him three goals and six assists during a six-game point streak versus Tampa Bay.
The Lightning, who have lost eight of the last nine home meetings with the Devils, likely will have Mathieu Garon in net for this contest. He has a 2.42 GAA in six career appearances - four starts - versus New Jersey.