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Lightning present unique challenge for coaches heading into playoffs

Cooper able to hold NHL's best team to high standard for push toward Stanley Cup

by Nicholas J. Cotsonika @cotsonika / NHL.com Columnist

There is a unique challenge to coaching a team like the Tampa Bay Lightning.

"They're good problems to have, but it's a different approach," assistant Jeff Halpern said with a laugh. "You want to be hard on the guys, but they might look up and say, 'It's 5-1. I don't know if you saw.'"

Coach Jon Cooper and his staff turned a talented roster into one of the best regular-season teams in NHL history, but they tried to prepare it for the Stanley Cup Playoffs in the process.

 

[RELATED: Complete Lightning vs. Blue Jackets series coverage]

 

The Lightning finished with 62 wins, tying the 1995-96 Detroit Red Wings for the NHL record, and 128 points, fourth in NHL history and four short of the record held by the 1976-77 Montreal Canadiens.

They won the Presidents' Trophy by a 21-point margin, the largest since the 1995-96 Red Wings won it by 27 points, and will play the Columbus Blue Jackets in the Eastern Conference First Round. Game 1 is at Amalie Arena on Wednesday (7 p.m. ET; USA, SN360, TVAS).

Expectations were as high as could be entering the season, inside and outside the organization. So far, so good.

"To live up to those expectations is a tough thing to do, and this group has done that," Cooper said. "And when these challenges get thrown in front of them, have they passed every test right away? No. But on most nights, they do, and they've created on aura about themselves. And it gets contagious in the room.

"On our end of things, you hold the players to that standard, and you make it unacceptable for anything less, and the players have gravitated to that and accepted that."

Video: Meaning of Lightning season if they don't win the Cup

After back-to-back 6-5 wins at Amalie Arena against the Philadelphia Flyers on Dec. 27 and the Canadiens on Dec. 29, the Lightning had what Cooper called "a serious talk in the room" before playing the Anaheim Ducks at Honda Center on Dec. 31. They were on a 13-0-1 run but weren't playing the right way.

"It's all well and good to be able to score your way out of some games," Cooper said. "But you can't do that consistently, and you can't do it in a playoff series."

They defeated the Ducks 2-1 in overtime. Before that game, they had allowed 3.87 goals per game. Starting with that game, they allowed 2.44 goals per game the rest of the season.

Cooper and his staff showed a lot of video and simulated a lot of situations in practice, making sure the players understood they didn't need to cheat for offense, creating good habits from the goal crease out.

"We've had enough examples of showing when we are in those right spots and we are being patient in our own zone, our speed and skill takes over," defenseman Ryan McDonagh said. "We disrupt a play in our own end, and we go from there."

The Lightning are so stacked that Cooper and his staff have integrated young players while scratching proud, accomplished veterans. Again, they have gotten everyone to buy in.

"I don't even know if it's buying in," Halpern said. "It's the way it is. Like, we've had open discussions with guys, especially the guys involved."

Video: Previewing Columbus vs. Tampa Bay First Round matchup

When it comes to focusing on defense or sacrificing playing time, it helps that Tampa Bay has players who understand the bigger picture and are willing to do what it takes to win. But they have to believe in the coach and each other.

All of this coincides with Cooper's own maturation; he's in his seventh season as an NHL coach, all with Tampa Bay. Early in his career, he felt the need to control everything. Now he delegates more to his staff and his leaders.

"We're all in this together," Cooper said. "You win as a staff, and you lose as a staff. And it took me some time to realize that. The head coach's voice, it doesn't need to be heard all the time. But it does need to be heard when there's an alarm going off. That's what I think I've done better now as I've gotten more experience."

That must be alarming for the rest of the League.

"He's a fiery competitor, and when he walks in the room, it rubs off on the team, and the team plays like that," Halpern said. "There's been very, very few times during the year where his energy hasn't been like it always is. You can tell maybe the team picks up on that because of the way he is day in and day out.

"I think at times when he's been hard on the guys, the practices or games, in between periods, he's pretty comfortable being hard on the guys. But I think I most respect the way he carries himself. When he enters the rink, it's upbeat, and it's go. And it's the way we play, so the team's kind of taken on the personality of him, our leaders, and it's kind of a credit to him."

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