TORONTO — In hockey, only on rare occasions do we see guards let down completely. True emotion is something reserved almost exclusively for moments of closure. Whether it is failure or actual accomplishment, culminating experiences are when we generally see players and coaches deviate from their basic protective settings, and feel comfortable enough to elaborate beyond half truths and hockeyspeak.
In some ways, Jon Cooper is the exception to that rule. The Tampa Bay Lightning head coach always has the time, and when he’s asked for his take on things, he either has a thoughtful answer or a story to tell that may or may not stray from the original subject, if only just a bit. This isn’t a coach who shies away from the microphone.
It’s this trait that made Cooper’s take on the Lightnings’s remarkable six-hour, 3-2 quintuple-overtime triumph over the Columbus Blue Jackets in Game 1 of their Round 1 rematch — and the most fascinating and gruelling night inside either bubble so far in the NHL’s pandemic restart — particularly noteworthy and, in the moment, highly anticipated.
Even beyond what was expected, there was delirium, and wandering, and anecdotes, and sentiment, and even insight into the type of protein laid over the salad that he refused to scarf down at any point during seven intermissions as to avoid throwing off the balance in the world at that precise moment.
But what was also felt in his time at the Zoom podium after the Lightning registered a record-breaking shot total, and on Brayden Point’s rising attempt in the eighth period finally overcame one of the single-best, single-game goaltending performances in history from Blue Jackets netminder Joonas Korpisalo, and emerged from the fourth-longest game ever played as winners, was that culminating feeling.
Like the Lightning had really done something.
“I don’t think anybody can understand how hard it is on a player to go through that and still, over eight periods of hockey, make the plays they were making,” Cooper said, settling himself for just a moment after taking the conversation every which way.
“It was remarkable.”
It’s hard not to be swept up after a night like this. For the head coach, it’s emotion, exhalation, exhaustion, and adrenaline levels flattening out right before our eyes. For everyone else it’s the narrative, which in this case may be best described as irresistible.
Here are the perennial favourites and the ultimate under-achievers in the Stanley Cup playoffs, one year later revisiting the site of their most crushing embarrassment and the derailment of their historically dominant regular season. And once again, against the same challenge and an opponent considered even more inferior when measured strictly on paper, the Lightning were encountering an unexplainable challenge, and again staring down an uncertain future.
Wilt as Korpisalo runs up a record number of saves in one of the most steadfast performances ever at the position, and begin again on that path back to certain disappointment. But survive the eight-period slog at Scotiabank Arena, well then it’s the victory that finally liberates the Lightning, and sends them on their way to the Stanley Cup they were supposed to have already won.
Then you catch yourself again.
“It was a good step for us, but let’s not forget: we played two games but it only counts as one,” said Cooper, at that point seeming to grow increasingly weary.
Still, when considering the recent history between the teams in addition to the alternative of pushing the limits on the human body for no actual beneficial purpose, this feels like it means more than just the result. Because as much as the Lightning are encountering this incredible physical challenge when games aren’t stretched out even 166 percent longer, the mental game should also be weighing on them more than any other team.
And this feat should have done wonders for it.
They proved they can beat the Blue Jackets after being swept last season.
They proved that when his counterpart does something extraordinary, Lightning netminder Andrei Vasilevskiy can still do him one save better.
And they proved that if they stick to the process and resist sacrificing the defensive side of the game to chase a moment offensively, that discipline will eventually win over.
“I must have said that 100 times,” Cooper said.
If this is the springboard to the certain success the hockey world has long forecasted for the Lightning, we will only find out down the road.
Clearly, though, assuming the Lightning have enough strength to make the continental breakfast in the morning, they are far better for it.
“There’s a long way to go in this series,” Cooper said. “But for us to get one, just the way we did it, it will give us confidence moving forward that we will be rewarded for all the work, the discipline, and the mental fortitude.”
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