June 20, 2019

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Opinion

Tampa has Lightning in a bottle

Douglas R. Clifford/The Associated Press Files</p><p>Tampa Bay Lightning head coach Jon Cooper has guided his team to 50 wins in just 66 games and are on pace for a one of the greatest regular-seasons in NHL history.</p>

Douglas R. Clifford/The Associated Press Files

Tampa Bay Lightning head coach Jon Cooper has guided his team to 50 wins in just 66 games and are on pace for a one of the greatest regular-seasons in NHL history.

TAMPA BAY — Jon Cooper was late for his post-morning skate meeting with the media Tuesday. Apologetic, he promised to make it up to those waiting on him.

“Baby Duck for everyone,” the Tampa Bay head coach said to laughter from the assembled scribes. Spoken like a true Canadian, not to mention someone who’s enjoying life these days. And who can blame him?

The Lightning hit 50 wins in just 66 games and are on pace for a one of the greatest regular-seasons in history, putting up absurd numbers most teams can only dream of. They have the league’s runaway top scorer and likely Hart Trophy winner in Nikita Kucherov, two other top-15 scorers in Steven Stamkos and Brayden Point, an elite goalie in Andrei Vasilevskiy and an elite defenceman in Victor Hedman. The top power play in the league. The best penalty killing unit. The most explosive offence.

I won’t even get into the beautiful city itself, where temperatures have been in the mid-20 C range as pretty much every other NHL market is still waiting for winter to hit the road.

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TAMPA BAY — Jon Cooper was late for his post-morning skate meeting with the media Tuesday. Apologetic, he promised to make it up to those waiting on him.

"Baby Duck for everyone," the Tampa Bay head coach said to laughter from the assembled scribes. Spoken like a true Canadian, not to mention someone who’s enjoying life these days. And who can blame him?

The Lightning hit 50 wins in just 66 games and are on pace for a one of the greatest regular-seasons in history, putting up absurd numbers most teams can only dream of. They have the league’s runaway top scorer and likely Hart Trophy winner in Nikita Kucherov, two other top-15 scorers in Steven Stamkos and Brayden Point, an elite goalie in Andrei Vasilevskiy and an elite defenceman in Victor Hedman. The top power play in the league. The best penalty killing unit. The most explosive offence.

I won’t even get into the beautiful city itself, where temperatures have been in the mid-20 C range as pretty much every other NHL market is still waiting for winter to hit the road.

Yeah, there’s not a lot to complain about right now if you’re a member of the Lightning. Forget Baby Duck, the product of Cooper’s home province in British Columbia. He and his crew will be sipping a much finer wine later this season if they live up to their billing as overwhelming favourites to hoist the Stanley Cup.

Now, it turns out the reason Cooper was tardy is that he crossed paths with Jets head coach Paul Maurice in the bowels of Amalie Arena. The pair had a quick gab session, having last seen each other in person at the all-star game in San Jose in late January.

It’s unlikely Cooper revealed any state secrets in his chat. But I wouldn’t blame Maurice if he at least tried to pick his brain a bit.

After all, how is it possible to go through nearly an entire season with all peaks and no valleys? Winnipeg would love to know, as its journey this year has been filled with plenty of potholes along the way. The Jets are certainly not alone, as every other contending team has battled ups and downs at various points.

But the good times just keep rolling for Tampa Bay, which doesn’t seem to have any trouble finding ways to stay motivated despite lapping the field, knowing they’ll enjoy home-ice advantage through the playoffs.

So how have they done it, and what might other teams like the Jets learn from them? I went looking for answers Tuesday inside the Lightning dressing room following the morning skate.

"Whether it was going good at times or we were coming off a loss, I don’t think our attitude has shifted as far as working hard every day to improve as a team and individually as well. It’s been a great sign for us that guys are willing to put in the work in between games and look at things to improve as a team, which has shown as our season has gone on and why we’re so consistent," defenceman Ryan McDonagh said.

In essence, they’ve made sure the foot is always kept on the gas, regardless of their obvious success, with an eye on the ultimate goal.

"One of the strengths of this team is that we evaluate ourselves honestly, I think. I think it starts with the leaders, and they’ve done an awesome job. I think we can always push ourselves to be a better team. It shouldn’t really matter in the standings, you should always want to be a better player and a better team," forward J.T. Miller said.

Cooper had a more succinct answer when I asked for the keys to sustained excellence.

"Coaching," he cracked, before getting serious for a second, crediting the leadership group, including McDonagh and Stamkos.

"In the end, as coaches we put in the structure, we do the things we do. But those are the guys who are together all the time and they have to execute it. When the leaders have bought in and are directing the traffic, good things happen," Cooper said.

Which takes us to these Jets, who appear to have many of the same tools as Tampa. Not to mention a captain in Blake Wheeler, who seems to be putting the club on his back as soon as the calendar flipped to March. He scored in the win against Nashville, had a career-high four goals in Sunday’s impressive win over Columbus, then opened the scoring Tuesday night in Tampa and tried to fight Cedric Paquette at the end of the first period after taking exception to a hit the feisty Lightning forward threw on a teammate.

Cooper was quick to single out Wheeler, saying he believes the Jets have the perfect leader in place to lead them to the promised land.

"I got to know Wheeler a bit over the all-star game, and you can tell they’re in good hands with him as captain," Cooper said.

"They’ve just got high-end guys. Their supporting cast, kinda like us, has just bought into what they’re doing. You got Mo (Maurice) running the show, he’s one of the top coaches the game has ever had. They’ve got a good blend over there."

Cooper wasn’t alone in his praise of the Jets. In fact, every Tampa player I talked to seemed to view a date with Winnipeg as a measuring stick for them, which is funny coming from a team looking down on everyone from the penthouse.

"They have three, four lines that can really score on a given night. Obviously, defensively they’ve got some big guys who can skate really well and like to join the rush and kind of maintain possession for them. Obviously a great goaltender for them as well. If need be, he can keep them in games and steal games," McDonagh said.

Maurice said he hasn’t seen a team this dominant since the Detroit Red Wings in their heyday nearly two decades ago. As for trying to replicate their success, he believes speed is the name of the game.

"Almost all of the teams that are in the playoffs, or certainly if you decided on the top 10, there’s an awful lot of speed to their game. There’s teams there that are more talented than we are, but not by that much. And there are really good teams that are maybe less talented. But they all play fast," Maurice said.

Of course, the Lightning are hoping they don’t have a quicker-than-planned exit in the playoffs, which is ultimately where they will be judged. The same goes for a Winnipeg club determined to go deep. Perhaps their paths will cross again in June with everything on the line.

Fans in both cities will be breaking out the Baby Duck if that happens.

mike.mcintyre@freepress.mb.caTwitter: @mikemcintyrewpg

Mike McIntyre

Mike McIntyre
Reporter

Mike McIntyre grew up wanting to be a professional wrestler. But when that dream fizzled, he put all his brawn into becoming a professional writer.

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