When the brightest picture you can paint to start a series is along the lines of Jon Cooper’s, “Well hey, we haven’t technically been eliminated yet,” things are pretty dire.
That’s true whether you barely snuck into the eighth seed or you tied the NHL’s all-time regular-season wins mark. But if you also happen to fall into the latter category, it has to be particularly galling, but it’s also only fair: Not only have the Lightning found themselves on the precipice of the biggest screw-up in NHL history, they also don’t have a single answer.
Jon Cooper, who should win the Jack Adams this year regardless of playoff result, perhaps has something better up his sleeve then, “We’ll see what happens in Game 4.” And if he isn’t tipping his hand, well, who can blame him? The Lightning jumped out to that 3-0 lead in the first period of Game 1 and everyone started laughing like, “Shouldn’t Columbus just run up the white flag and fly home and forfeit the series and collectively retire from the sport?” Since then, they’ve been outscored 12-2, outshot 77-71, and out-xG’d 5.08-4.95. Which is to say that Columbus has an oversized scoreboard advantage but has also had the better of the play, especially because the Blue Jackets led for the vast majority of Games 2 and 3, meaning Tampa’s underlyings are inflated by score effects.
There are some other mitigating factors to consider. No Hedman and no Kucherov for Game 3, and maybe no Hedman for Game 4 either. But the main mitigating factor seems to be that someone is absolutely kicking their ass and they do not know how to take it. The Kucherov hit that led to a suspension looked like pure frustration, and so too did the Stamkos sucker-punch. You hear all the time about guys gripping their sticks if they have a run of goalscoring bad luck, or goalies getting their confidence shaken by a few bad games. Can that be a collective thing, because this is an entire team that’s awfully snake-bit (all-situations PDO of 87.2 over the last eight periods) and they’re just throwing a game-long temper tantrum about it at this point.
I’m not sure there’s much of a qualitative difference between getting swept and losing in five or even six games when you’re the best regular-season team of the last 30 years, but obviously you just play Game 4 in a way that will allow you to play Game 5 because it doesn’t serve you to think about Games 5, 6, or 7 when you’re looking down the barrel of that cannon. So it’s easy to say, “Well Cooper needs to really shake things up if they want to win even one game in this series.” But the thing is that the Lightning are a hell of a good hockey team despite what you’ve seen from these last three games and shaking it up in desperation might not work.
One thing I’m fairly confident in here is that John Tortorella was not waiting until Game 1 of the first round to unleash a brilliant and hitherto obscure master plan to beat the best team ever assembled.
The Blue Jackets played great down the stretch, for sure, winning 7 of 8, outscoring opponents 35-14, outshooting them 266-222, all that. They continued that run of great hockey in these first three games. This is a very good, talented team that only ended up in the eight seed because they struggled on special teams for most of the year, including during that sprint to the end of the regular season. That they are suddenly 4 of 8 on the power play and 5 for 5 on the PK might not really mean anything in terms of whether they’re playing differently or better. But it means everything in terms of differentiating themselves from a team that is frankly still better than them on paper.
That’s hard to accept when you see them just outplaying the Lightning from front to back in Games 2 and 3, but it’s true. And it leaves Cooper in that tough spot because he knows what works and changing things up for the sake of change will either help or not-help, and it’s impossible to know what’s the right call.
If he makes as many changes to the roster as is reasonable and they win, did they win because of those changes or because elite goaltender Andrei Vasilevskiy stopped playing .860-something hockey? If he makes changes and they lose, was it because he suddenly ran out of answers against a team he absolutely clowned three times in the regular season (all before the trade deadline, though)?
And if he decides to dance with who he came to the dance with, and they win, does that mean things have snapped back to normal? If he goes with what got him there, does that mean he made a bad decision?
Put another way: Cooper has 82 elite games’ worth of data to tell him what this group is capable of, and changing things now because three went very, very, veryveryvery sideways might not serve him. Mixing up the lines to see what it gets you could work, but this entire, incredible regular season showed that sticking with what works usually, y’know, works.
Maybe none of it matters. There’s always a small chance of a reverse-sweep and if any team can pull it off, it’s probably the best one in the cap era, bar none. But the way things have gone, the lack of positive response, I don’t know how you coach, think, or just play your way out of that for four straight games.
Any series loss would have been considered a meltdown. A sweep is unthinkable. And yet here we are, and the only thing Cooper can do now is put his best lineup out there to maybe, hopefully avoid becoming the architect of the biggest punchline in hockey history.
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