TAMPA -- Having one of the best goal-scorers on earth playing for your team can't be seen as anything but a blessing for a coach.
Until it isn't.
Tampa Bay Lightning coach Jon Cooper has the luxury of having Steven Stamkos on his bench every game, but if he spends too much time on that bench, the spotlight turns to Cooper, not in a good way.
When the Lightning needed a goal in the third period of Game 5 of the Stanley Cup Final against the Chicago Blackhawks on Saturday, Stamkos was just another player when you look at his ice time.
The Lightning did not get that goal, lost 2-1, and head back to Chicago down 3-2 in the best-of-7 series with Game 6 on Monday (8 p.m. ET; NBC, CBC, TVA Sports).
"At some point, you just can't keep playing the same guy over and over because then they become infective," Cooper said. "But our top players are getting the minutes. It's the full 60 minutes here we have to dwell on. We can't sit here and say, I know we need that goal in the last minute, but I've learned that you keep putting the same guys out the last four minutes, by the time you got to the last two minutes, they've got nothing left."
Cooper managed a bench missing one of his top players, forward Nikita Kucherov, for almost the entire game after he collided with the goal post and left at 5:22 of the first period. That forced Cooper to mix and match his lines, and Stamkos spent most of the first half on his regular line with Valtteri Filppula and Alex Killorn before switching to take Kucherov's spot on a line with Tyler Johnson and Ondrej Palat.
Over the final 7:41 of the third period, Stamkos, Johnson and Palat played three shifts, or as many as Cedric Paquette and J.T. Brown did. Stamkos' ice time over that 7:41 was 2:47, 10 seconds more than Paquette.
Paquette has scored twice in the Final and Stamkos hasn't scored in seven games, but that could not have been a factor here.
"I mean, I'm not the coach. You'd have to ask him that," Stamkos said when asked about shortening the bench at the end of the game. "But we've relied on our depth all season, and the guys that are thrown out there are going to give it their all, and that's all we can ask for."
At one point, Stamkos spent 2:26 on the bench before he was sent on the ice for his final shift of the game at 18:28 of the third period, shortly before goaltender Ben Bishop was pulled for an extra attacker with a little more than a minute left. Cooper never used his timeout to get his top players some extra rest.
Much like a manager in the World Series bringing in his ace on two days' rest to get out of a late-inning jam, being this close to a championship sometimes calls for measures you normally would not use in the regular season. This seemed like one of those times.
"These guys know. We know when they're ready. They tell me when they're ready to go back out," Cooper said. "It's a team. [Stamkos] is a huge part of this. He's trying to score like everybody else. But we can't sit here and say we're going to put one single player out there for the last four or five minutes and expect results.
"He gave it everything he had. So did everybody else. We're struggling to score right now."
The Lightning have to defeat the Blackhawks twice in a row to win the Stanley Cup, and there's nothing saying that would be any different had Stamkos played an extra shift in the third period.
Though the Lightning are inexperienced when compared to the Blackhawks, this is a scenario they have faced in these Stanley Cup Playoffs. In the first round against the Detroit Red Wings, the Lightning lost Game 5 at home, had to win Game 6 in Detroit, and closed the series with a 2-0 win in Game 7 in Tampa.
Now the Lightning need to do the same thing, on a far bigger stage with far greater scrutiny.
"We've been in this position before just a month and a half ago in the Detroit series," Cooper said. "This team has found a way. That's why we are where we are right now.
"We've been in so many different situations in this playoffs, whether we've been up 3-2 or down 3-2, we've gone through this now. People can't sit here and say, 'the inexperienced Lightning.' I think we're the 'Gamer Lightning.' These guys have gamed out this playoffs, and I expect nothing less in Game 6 in Chicago."