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New coach Cooper: Lightning not out of playoff race

by Lonnie Herman

TAMPA -- Jon Cooper isn't giving up on getting the Tampa Bay Lightning into the Stanley Cup Playoffs.

"To hear someone say, 'the playoffs are history,' I don't know," Cooper said Tuesday when he met the media on his first full day as the Lightning's new coach. "If someone said last year that a team in the American Hockey League will win 28 games in a row, not too many people would agree with that. Until the final buzzer goes on the last game of the season, I'm coming here to make the playoffs."

Jon Cooper was formally introduced Tuesday as the eighth coach in Lightning franchise history. His first game behind the bench will be Friday at home against New Jersey. (Photo: Scott Audette/NHLI)

"When [general manager] Steve [Yzerman] offered me the job, I asked him, 'Are you sure you want to do this.' 'I really want to do this', he replied. 'Well if you do,' I told him, 'I'm really going to try and screw up your draft pick.'"

As coach of the Lightning's AHL affiliate, Cooper led Norfolk to the American Hockey League title last spring after the Admirals ran off a 28-game regular-season winning streak.

But getting the Lightning into the playoffs figures to be tougher. The Lightning entered Tuesday's action next-to-last in the Eastern Conference with 27 points, six out of the eighth and final playoff berth. And despite a passing acquaintance with Steven Stamkos and Teddy Purcell, Cooper admitted he's basically unfamiliar with most of the team's established players -- something he said is obviously about to change.

"I haven't had a lot of contact with a lot of vets," Cooper said, "but very soon I'll have a lot of contact with them now."

When asked about his core coaching viewpoints, Cooper called that a "tough question to answer" and then skipped over strategy to discuss more philosophical matters.

"I believe in respect," Cooper said. "Everyone has to have respect for each other, mutual respect. I'm a big believer that we're all in this together, whether someone plays 26 minutes or four minutes, whether someone scores 60 goals or gets in 60 fights. Everyone has a role. We're in this together and the job is to win.

"A big reason I've had success in the past is that we've all believed in each other. Nobody strayed from the course, and everyone bought in. I know those are kind of clichés, but regardless of what happens, when the fans leave this rink they will be proud of their team. There has been a certain kind of swagger in the teams I coached. I think you have to have that to win. Respect the opponent but don't fear them."

Cooper officially takes over as coach on Wednesday; his first game behind the bench is Friday night at home against New Jersey.

"It's 'game on' as of tomorrow," Cooper said. "Whatever that may be."

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