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Five Questions: Cooper likes Lightning's resiliency

by Dan Rosen's Q&A feature called "Five Questions With …" runs every Tuesday. We talk to key figures in the game and ask them questions to gain insight into their lives, careers and the latest news.

This edition features Tampa Bay Lightning coach Jon Cooper.

The Tampa Bay Lightning haven't had enough shields to block the darts of adversity that have punctured them this season.

Be it injuries, scoring problems, or dominating storylines about captain Steven Stamkos and his future in Tampa Bay, the Lightning have barely resembled the team that represented the Eastern Conference in the Stanley Cup Final last season.

The Lightning go into their game Tuesday against the Vancouver Canucks in sixth place in the Atlantic Division, two points out of the second wild card into the Stanley Cup Playoffs from the Eastern Conference. But the Lightning also go into their game against the Canucks off a 5-2 win against the Ottawa Senators on Sunday, Tampa Bay's sixth win in nine December games and ninth in their past 14.

Momentum appears to be slowly swinging in the Lightning's favor despite injuries that won't go away. They are expected to play against the Canucks without six of their top 12 forwards (Tyler Johnson, Ondrej Palat, Jonathan Drouin, Cedric Paquette, J.T. Brown and Brian Boyle).

But the Lightning have a chance to get 10 wins in a 15-game stretch before heading into the NHL holiday break.

"We could have gone south and it would have been trouble for us, but if we jump back into a playoff spot, you will look at this little stretch here as the one that kept us in it," Cooper said.

"Our mentality as a group, for the first time this season, is to look through the windshield instead of the rearview mirror. That's a good thing for us."

Cooper talked more about the adversity the Lightning have faced this season and why he thinks they're figuring out a way to overcome it.

Here are five questions with … Jon Cooper:

The injuries have piled up, and continue to do so, even with players getting hurt in the first minute of games. Steven Stamkos just the other night mentioned that it's almost scary to walk into the trainer's room now and see so many guys lined up on the tables getting treatment for injuries that are keeping them out. It's a legitimate excuse for being inconsistent. Is this finally the time that a team can use injuries as an excuse for not being in a playoff position?

"That's the thing, you can't. It's funny how it works though. When we had what we consider our regular lineup in, we were just trying to find our identity again after having a long playoff run. I don't know, we were just kind of spinning our wheels a little bit. And then all the injuries happened. I've gotta give our team a ton of credit because they could have turned the corner and said, 'You know what, we've got a lot of guys out, and that's why this hasn't been working.' But instead, we got this infusion of players from Syracuse -- and the joke around here is that we're Tampacuse -- and they are just a bunch of guys that have come up here, work their tail off, follow the system to try to win hockey games. The guys, our regulars that are here, I think they've fed off of that. I think both groups have fed off of each other, to be honest. We've had to change our lines, put guys in different positions, guys on the power play and penalty kill, and everybody is just finding a way. They're scoring big goals. [Mike] Angelidis got a game-winner for us against Ottawa. [Mike] Blunden got the goal that got us going against Toronto. It just goes down the list. Especially when you're studs like Stammer (Stamkos) go 10 games without scoring, somebody has to keep you afloat in the goal scoring-department and these guys have done part of it. Now Stammer has three goals in his last two, but those other guys haven't stopped contributing."

What is the difference between Stamkos in the past two games, when he has scored three goals, and in the previous 10, when he was shut out? Is it simply the shots on goal -- 12 in the past two games, 17 in the previous 10 -- or is it more than that?

"Don't even just look at his shots on goal; also look at his shot attempts, there's another 10 in there. He had five shots against Washington, but 13 attempts. He had seven shots against Ottawa, nine attempts. I bet you if I went through the previous six or so games, he's not near those numbers. I'm not sitting here saying, 'Well, he just needed to shoot the puck more.' Part of it is a mindset for him and any goal-scorer. I think when it's not going in for you, there's a little bit of an inclination to say, 'OK, it's not going in for me, I'm going to pass.' I think that's a human-nature thing. He had to get that shooter's mentality back. Now, his lifetime shooting percentage is around 15 percent or better (17.2 percent). His shooting percentage this season is also around 15 percent (15.9 percent). It's simple mathematics, really. That's what it is. The more a player of his shooting ability puts pucks at the net, there is a better chance that they'll go in. Eventually, if you continue to have a shooting mentality, especially with his shot, pucks are going to start going in for him. And now they are."

Have you noticed other areas of his game pick up as well because the puck has started going in for him?

"When he got his goal against Washington, it was like he got 20 percent faster on the ice. He had pop in his legs. He had jump. You could just tell. It's like the weight off of his shoulders. Stammer is a team guy and he wants to win, but for all these players, and I don't care who it is, they want to contribute too. They want to feel like they're helping the team win. Everybody wants that, especially guys like Stammer, who are used to scoring 40-plus goals a year. So when you're not scoring, there's just an undo weight that's put on you. It's put on you by the media, by everybody. It's, 'Well, why isn't he scoring?' Part of the reason, too, is he's played with [Vladislav] Namestnikov and [Nikita] Kucherov here for a little bit, and I think they're starting to get a little vibe with each other. I think that's helping. When guys start getting some familiarity, now you know where guys are going to be and I think that's worked in his favor a little bit. But, really, I truly believe that Stammer was putting a lot of pressure on himself. It was like a horse race for him, when the horses line up in the starting gate, and as soon as he got that goal it was like when they open the gates and the horses take off. The gate is open for him."

Everywhere you've been, be it coaching high school hockey up to the American Hockey League, you have experienced enough success that it allowed you to advance in your career, take the next step, go to the next level. There is no next level. You're in the NHL. And now you're dealing with adversity after having success. What, if anything, has prepared you for this?

"I think you look at the big picture. You're saying, 'Oh, you had all this success, you got to 50 wins last year, got to the Stanley Cup Final,' but I think there is something to be said for the new guy coming in, putting in his system, finding the players, their roles. In a lot of situations with coaches, that's how it goes: The new guy comes in and it's about how long can you sustain that. You're basically judged by your end result, not how you got there. In all the other years [before I got to the NHL], every year didn't go without struggles. There was always some sort of adversity or something that went on during the year that you had to fight your way through and rise yourself, try to find a way to get yourself to the top. I think for us, I think we're going through a lot of adversity, especially with the short summer, where we went last season, the mentality of our team, a young team trying to deal with what happened. The one thing that I know, that is not on our minds now, that probably was in October and November, is last season. When all our injuries happened, it kind of changed our mentality a little bit. We've forgotten about last year, and I think that has helped us. Now we are officially into this season, and it's a grind. We know that. There's no cushion. We don't have the cushion that the Montreal Canadiens, the Rangers, Dallas gave themselves in the beginning. They can go through some mini slumps here and not really have to worry about their position because they had such a cushion because of their fast start. We don't have that, so this is different for us. And for me, it's a different challenge, there's no question. It opens doors that you've never really had to walk through before as a coach. In a weird way, you kind of grow as a coach in situations like this."

Do you feel that it has turned, that this last little stretch has turned things around for you guys?

"It's a little too soon to say things have turned, but if I was going to pick a point in this season that our mindset very much the mindset we had last season, it's right now. And that's with almost half our forward group being from the American Hockey League, from Syracuse. Our mentality has changed. We're not the team that was hanging on to the aura of going to the Cup Final last season. That's gone. Now we're a team of survivors, of guys looking around, seeing who is out of the lineup, and challenging themselves by saying, 'You know what, let's go win a hockey game.' But, as you go through the list of guys that are out of the lineup, guys like Johnson and Palat and Paquette, it's so weird to say, but this is almost a break for them. We may have a rejuvenated group of guys come in like it's the opening day of training camp. You can only say that if your team didn't nosedive, but we've held our ground in the standings. You look at when these guys come back, that's a definite possibility."


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