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.”
Gallagher, of course, made no mistake and scored the goal despite the added degree of difficulty of having a wad of gauze stuck up his nose – field medicine to stanch the bleeding from an earlier hit.
“My face went into the boards a little bit, that’s all right though,” Gallagher said.
If there is to be a poster of Gallagher for sale in the Canadiens’ shop any time soon, it will have to feature him smiling after that goal.
With just six minutes elapsed in the third, the Habs salted the game away.
Tomas Plekanec fired an absolute screamer of a slapshot past Anders Lindback – terrific on this night.
Tampa’s Matt Carle was able to claw one goal back with a seeing-eye point shot that eluded Price, but that was as close as the Lightning would get – Stamkos had a decent chance in the final seconds with Lindback on the bench, but shot narrowly wide.
Post-game, Cooper was also irked by a clever bit of gamesmanship by Price With just under a minute to go in the frame and with the Habs gassed after an icing play, Price discovered an equipment problem and skated to the bench to buy his team a little time.
“You know what? He was complaining about it the shift before, to be honest with you, about his pad,” Subban said. “So maybe it’s just irony, it just so happened I had been out there a while. Obviously I was thankful for the rest, yeah.”
Tampa had another calamity to deal with not long after the disallowed goal.
As Stamkos rumbled up the ice he got tangled up with the Habs’ Brandon Prust, who knocked him to the ice near the Montreal blue line, and from there he slid until Alexei Emelin’s knee collided with his head as the latter tried to get out of the way.
Stamkos lay in the ice clutching his head, and was clearly woozy when he first tried to stand.
Trainers escorted him to the dressing room, but he was back on the bench at the start of the third period.
According to a CTV report, Stamkos told trainers he was suffering from a headache but wanted to get back out on the ice.
Cooper said he didn’t have any details to proffer on what testing or treatment Stamkos was subjected to.
“When he came in he was shaken up, but then he felt better. We were going to give him a shift to see how he felt, but he just got better and better as it went on, so he was OK,” Cooper said. “For a coach it's can the player go, or can he not? And we take every precaution on the side of the player not playing. But they said he was good to go, Steven said he was good
to go. He got stronger as the game, so he was fine.”
Setting team records with a club as old at the Montreal Canadiens is usually a function of said record’s obscurity.
So Rene Bourque’s goal 11 seconds into Sunday’s game, before the crowd had even had time settle down after Quebec singer Ginette Reno’s rousing O Canada, isn’t a team mark for the playoffs – Bob Gainey once scored with seven seconds elapsed.
But it staked the Habs to a start even a congenital optimist wouldn’t dare hope for.
Tampa’s Valtteri Filppula drew the opening faceoff back, the puck was sent toward the Montreal end, and Subban swooped across to cut it off and lobbed a diagonal pass high into the air.
Bourque read it, and screamed up the ice, rounding Tampa’s defence and tucking a shot in off Lindback’s arm.
Bedlam doesn’t begin to describe the racket in the Bell Centre when the puck wormed its way through the big Swedish goalie.
As they like to say in hockey circles, it’s a shot he’d like to have back, but happily the Canadiens provided a bushel of subsequent scoring chances so he could show his mettle.
He closed down Montreal’s Max Pacioretty on back-to-back chances as he stood alone in the slot, the 39-goal man has yet to score in this series.
And of course another of them fell to Bourque, the oft-maligned forward who contributed only nine regular season goals.
The 32-year-old native of Lac La Biche, Alta., also made a gorgeous back check to deny Callahan a goal in the first period – and also mixed it up with Callahan after checked Stamkos in the first period.
It should be pointed out that Bourque now has five goals in eight playoff games as a Montreal Canadien, which should quiet the grumbling from those who pine for the post-season exploits of Michael Cammalleri, the man he was traded for.