The head coaches of the Tampa Bay Lightning and Detroit Red Wings, respectively, are good friends on and off the ice. They regularly text and talk during the regular season (although more at the beginning of the season than of late). They pull for each other when they’re not playing each other. And they even find time to hit the links together in the summer when their schedules allow.
On Wednesday, the two good friends will meet up in the Stanley Cup Playoffs for the first time as Cooper’s Lightning host Blashill’s Red Wings in a First Round reprisal of last season’s seven-game war between the two Atlantic Division rivals.
Cooper is in his third full season as a head coach in the NHL; Blashill is a league rookie.
“When you’re in the NHL, you get so wrapped up in your team, but if there’s one coach I’ve talked to the most in this league, it’s been him,” Cooper said. “It’s not even about hockey half the time. It’s about other things, how our friends are doing and other things. We’ve got a pretty good group of guys that keep in contact with each other.”
Cooper and Blashill have met in the playoffs twice before, each coach winning once. Blashill’s Indiana Ice defeated Cooper’s Green Bay Gamblers in the second round of the USHL playoffs on their way to winning their first-ever Clark Cup league title. The next season, Cooper returned the favor, knocking the Ice out of the playoffs in the second round en route to winning the Clark Cup.
Consider their upcoming Stanley Cup Playoffs meeting the rubber match.
“I’m really happy for him that they made the playoffs and he’s having success,” Cooper said. “I just wish we weren’t playing each other until the Final. And I know that’s unrealistic, but playing in the First Round kind of sucks because one of us isn’t going to advance. But I guess on the bright side, one of us is going to the Second Round…We’re competitors, there’s no question, but we have a friendship and that will never divide that.
“Unless he reaches around and squirts a water bottle on me.”
Blashill is looking forward to going up against a good friend’s team in his first trip to the NHL postseason. Blashill was named Detroit’s head coach on June 9, 2015, and led the Red Wings to their 25th-consecutive playoff appearance, the longest active postseason streak in all of North American professional sports.
“It’ll be fun,” Blashill said. “I’ve faced friends at different times of my career, whether it be in pro hockey or college hockey or junior hockey, and Coop certainly him and I have had a couple different series where we’ve battled. It’s enjoyable to compete against somebody that’s a good friend.”
The friendship between Cooper and Blashill underscores the familiarity between the Lightning and the Red Wings. The two teams played seven excruciatingly-tight playoff games in the First Round of the 2015 Playoffs, a series that, truthfully, could have gone either way. Detroit had a chance to go up three games to one in that series, holding a 2-0 lead with six minutes remaining at home in Game 4 before the Lightning rallied to level the score in regulation and Tyler Johnson completed the improbable comeback with the game-winner in overtime.
Detroit rebounded to win Game 5 in Tampa Bay and had a chance to close out the Lightning at home in Game 6, but the Bolts played one of their best games of the year in a 5-2 win to survive and closed out the Red Wings in Game 7 at Amalie Arena.
Watching the Lightning advance to the Stanley Cup Final did nothing more than infuriate the Red Wings, who felt it could have been them going to the Cup Final had they just found a way to close out the Bolts.
“Usually, there’s not much room out there (when the Lightning and Red Wings play),” Cooper said. “There’s not a ton of scoring chances. Both teams know each other really well, so it probably makes it a little bit more difficult to play against because players know your tendencies. There’s going to be no surprises out there. Ultimately, you’ve got to fight for every inch of ice, and they’re hard, hard series to be a part of. Just look at last year. I truly believe us getting through that series is what propelled us. It was kind of our springboard to get to the final last year, and I expect nothing less (this year).”
Both teams return nearly identical rosters from a year ago, the notable exception coming in Detroit when Blashill took over for Mike Babcock -- who left to coach the Toronto Maple Leafs -- during the offseason and the addition of future NHL superstar Dylan Larkin to the lineup.
The Lightning swapped one fourth-line forward (Brenden Morrow) for another (Erik Condra) in the offseason, the only change in their squad from a season ago.
“I think they’ve been pretty similar to what we’ve played,” Detroit forward Gustav Nyquist said. “We played them four times this year. I think they pretty much have the same pieces there, so obviously they have some real high-end skill. I think they’re real dangerous on the rush. I think that’s a big part of it. I think that was a big part last year too. You just have to manage the puck and not turn the puck over because then they’re real dangerous. Their D still likes to join the rush.”
One other big change of note for Tampa Bay: The Lightning will be without Steven Stamkos (surgery to treat a type of Vascular Thoracic Outlet Syndrome) and Anton Stralman (non-displaced fracture of left fibula) for the series as both went down late in the regular season. A few other Bolts – Ryan Callahan (lower-body injury), Victor Hedman (upper-body injury) and Tyler Johnson (upper-body injury – are also dinged up but expected to play.
“We can’t really concentrate if they have injuries or not. They have great players to fill in,” Detroit center Luke Glendening said. “They have great players up and down their lineup. They might be missing a few pieces, but they have guys that are ready to step up. We have to focus on our game and what we do.”
Of course, Tampa Bay and Detroit share one more connection. Lightning GM Steve Yzerman played 22 seasons for Detroit and, at age 21, was named captain of the Red Wings, a role he filled for over two decades. Yzerman led the Red Wings to three Stanley Cups, and he remains one of the most popular figures in Detroit sports history. After all, the address for Joe Louis Arena, home of the Detroit Red Wings, is 19 Steve Yzerman Drive.
Now Yzerman is the enemy as the Lightning try to knock the Red Wings out of the playoffs for a second-straight year.
And Cooper, well he’s looking for bragging rights when he hits the golf course with his good friend later this summer.
“There’s a lot riding on this (series),” he joked.