TRAIKOS: If Leafs break up core group, Lightning coach is ready

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Jon Cooper has one message — name it a warning — for anybody considering that the Toronto Maple Leafs ought to break up their core, simply because they as soon as once more misplaced in Sport 7 within the first spherical of the playoffs.

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You’re going to remorse it.

“I’m not in that room. I coach the Tampa Bay Lightning,” Cooper mentioned following Saturday evening’s 2-1 win towards Toronto. “But I know some of their players. I’ve been behind the bench with Morgan Rielly. I’ve been behind the bench with Mitch Marner. I’ve been behind the bench with Auston Matthews. 

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“And if those guys became available, I would be first in line to put them on my team.”

This wasn’t Cooper attempting to consul Leafs followers who’re questioning if their workforce is ever going to recover from the hump. Slightly, this was an indication of respect for a workforce that gave nearly as good because it may, however nonetheless ended up falling brief in a best-of-seven sequence that went the gap.

“That was as evenly matched a series as you’re going to see,” mentioned Cooper. “This wasn’t a 4-0 sweep. This was we were down 3-2 in the series and we found a way, but it was as close as it can be. I personally answered the same questions that they’re going to answer now three years ago — maybe in a different way I guess, because we had gone to a final a few years earlier — but they gave us everything that we can handle.”

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Cooper was referring to the 2019 season, when Tampa Bay had completed with the perfect general report within the NHL, earlier than getting swept by the Columbus Blue Jackets within the first spherical of the playoffs. The next 12 months, they gained the Stanley Cup. After which gained it once more final 12 months.

Might that occur to the Leafs?

“It’s a great hockey team, no doubt,” mentioned Lightning captain Steven Stamkos. “They’ve got all the pieces. It’s not easy. It’s not easy at this time of the year. We’ve talked about it as a group before. We’ve had some failures in the past and we just move on and you just got to get over the hump. That’s the thing. Sometimes it becomes mental. But it certainly wasn’t because they’re not worthy of it. They are. 

“They’re a team that was one of the toughest series we’ve probably played in terms of they’ve got the star players, they’ve got the goaltender, solid defencemen, you got down the list and they’ve got everything. It’s just, we believed in ourselves too. We knew it was going to be a long series. We talked about it from the start … Game 7s can go either way.”

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For Toronto, which has now did not advance previous the primary spherical in six consecutive years, it retains going the unsuitable manner — particularly in Sport 7s or elimination video games.

In 2018, they misplaced 7-4 in Sport 7 to the Boston Bruins. A 12 months later, they misplaced 5-1 to the Bruins in Sport 7. In 2020, they have been shutout 3-0 in Sport 5 of a best-of-five to Columbus. And final 12 months, they misplaced 3-1 to Montreal in Sport 7 after being up 3-1 within the sequence.

This 12 months, it appeared like Toronto had the workforce to lastly do it. However the Leafs, who had a 3-2 lead within the sequence, couldn’t shut out the two-time defending champions, who beat Toronto 4-3 in extra time in Sport 6 earlier than taking Sport 7 in one other tight win. 

“The bottom line is there were eight teams with over 100 points in the Eastern Conference,” mentioned Cooper. “Three of them went to Game 7s and one was the Presidents’ Trophy (winner), who went to overtime and had to battle back to win their series. And that’s how even it was. So there was going to be four teams with 100-plus points that were going to be out in the first round and fortunately for us we weren’t one of them, but it took everything to knock these guys out.”

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As for what comes subsequent for Leafs, at the least Lightning participant mentioned he wouldn’t be shocked in the event that they comply with Tampa Bay’s to success.

“Unbelievable team. Tough-fought series. Close games,” mentioned Lightning defenceman Victor Hedman. “They’ve got some unbelievable players. They were fighting hard. It was a close game today, it could have gone either way. They’re a great group. Their best players are still very young — well, not very young, but still young in this league — and they’re going to get another chance at this. 

“Obviously, we’re very happy to come out on top, but they’re a great team. They’re going to go a long ways in the future.”

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