Humour is most often used as a salve; rarer is the talent that can also wield it like a weapon.
Tampa Bay Lightning coach Jon Cooper is, by all accounts and the evidence of the past week, a man of great comedic talents.
He’ll deliver dry one-liners (on a banged-up Ondrej Palat: “I guess we’ll call him day-to-day, but then again, aren’t we all?”)
Occasionally there will be playful sarcasm (on the Habs’ 2-0 lead, he deadpanned “I’m sure (the Canadiens) have never had a 2-0 lead on the road and come back and blown it,” a cheeky reference to the 2011 playoffs when they did just that.)
After his team’s morale-crushing 3-2 loss to the Canadiens, who have thoroughly stifled Tampa’s offence and now lead the series 3-0, Cooper deployed the acid-pointed variant of derision - but with uncommon deftness.
Referring to a controversial disallowed goal in the second period – it was not the only plot twist in a four-minute slice of the second period– he said “Everybody’s trying to do their best. We're trying to do out best, the Canadiens are trying to do their best, the refs are trying to do their best. But it's just tough to swallow for us.
"But let’s call a spade a spade. We only scored three goals," he continued, before stopping a beat. "I mean, two. And they got three.”
Toward the end of his remarks Cooper stressed "please don't make this sound like sour grapes, it isn't sour grapes."
He also commended the official for being "defiant and decisive, and he never wavered" even if he didn't see the play unfold the same way.
If the NHL were a primetime courtroom drama, there’s no question about the role Cooper, who practiced law before getting into coaching, would occupy: the sardonic, canny defence lawyer who delivers killer final arguments and doesn’t mind testing the judge’s patience with his questions.
The facts of the case, which are being disputed by the Lightning, are these.
With the game tied 1-1 at 15:38 of the second period, Ryan Callahan’s shot caromed off a sliding Carey Price and into the net.
But referee Francis Charron immediately waved the goal off – it was judged that Tampa forward Alex Killorn, who had barreled into the Montreal net moments earlier, had interfered with Price.
Replays showed Price initiating contact with Killorn, who had been kept from standing up by P.K. Subban, as he tried to leave the crease.
That’s still goalie interference according to the NHL rulebook.
Rule 69.3 states that “If a goalkeeper, in the act of establishing his position within his goal crease, initiates contact with an attacking player who is in the goal crease, and this results in an impairment of the goalkeeper’s ability to defend his goal, and a goal is scored, the goal will be disallowed.”
Retired NHL referee Kerry Fraser tweeted that “Price knows this rule and works it to his advantage better than any goalie in the league.”
Cooper was not a happy man in the immediate aftermath of the call, and was even less so once the final horn had sounded.
“I was pissed then, and I’m pissed now,” he said after.
Price said “their guy was in the crease and I tripped over him, so that’s why I was scrambling around.”
Cooper’s interpretation of the event was somewhat different.
“In my opinion, I saw it differently. But he's the one making the call, he's a human being, he sees it one way, I see it another. There's so many different calls,” Cooper said. “I see Steven Stamkos, one of the greatest goal-scorers to play the game, on a full-fledged breakaway, not offside, they saw it differently. Again, I'll let the court of public opinion decide that. Everybody's human. It's bang-bang plays. We've had offsides go for us, and we've had offsides go against us. It just sucks that it happened in the magnitude of a big-time playoff game. There were so many different things that happened.”
One of the things that happened was Subban.
Not long after the disallowed goal, the 24-year-old, who played 28:03 and now has four points in this series, seized on a puck in the Tampa end.
Dangling clockwise, he skated up to the blue-line, then chugged back down toward the net, eluding Ondrej Palat so comprehensively that managed to pitchfork himself with his own stick as he chased his quarry behind the net (“When does that happen?” Cooper said)..
Then Subban came out the other side, slammed on the brakes, whirled a bullet pass to an open Brendan Gallagher, who had time to settle the puck and pick his spot.
Habs coach Michel Therrien, who is no fan of Subban’s more aggressive offensive forays, joked that “It happened so fast I didn’t have time to get worried.”