Jon Cooper might have reacted differently five years ago to losing in double overtime in Tampa Bay’s first chance to move on to the Stanley Cup Final, sulking with his head down and kicking the nearest soda can.
That’s not his or his team’s reaction now.
Sure, the Lightning didn’t close out the New York Islanders in five games in the Eastern Conference final like they did against their previous two opponents. But a year after taking the best record in hockey into a first-round sweep at the hands of Columbus, this group seems far more apt to handle adversity: The Lightning won a five OT marathon earlier this playoffs and beat the hard-working Islanders in Game 2 with only nine forwards.
“Adversity’s kicked us in the butt a tonne of times in these playoffs,” Cooper said Wednesday. “Adversity hits different ways. This is just another one. This year, I’m really at peace with the way this team is playing. They’ve got this quiet calm about them, and they’ll be all ready.”
Tampa Bay still leads the East final 3-2 going into Game 6 Thursday night but could again be without injured leading scorer Brayden Point. New York’s two victories this series have come with Point.
No on expects to know if Point will return until game time, but the Lightning would likely have him on the ice if he was ready.
“In my history, when guys have been hurt, they don’t play the same way,” Cooper said. “Sometimes you have to protect them from themselves. But in this situation, I’m hoping it’s not the last time we’re going to see Pointer, and we might be able to see him as early as [Thursday] night.”
Point’s absence makes this the Lightning’s toughest adversity yet. They have plenty of talent, but it’s impossible to replicate Point’s play that has him tied for the postseason scoring lead with nine goals and 16 assists.
“He’s been so good for us in these playoffs,” forward Alex Killorn said. “He’s a huge part of our team. He drives our team in a lot of sense: the way we play, the energy we play with.”
Top winger Ondrej Palat said the energy is still up around the team after the double OT loss in Game 5 Tuesday night, and there is good reason for confidence. From goaltender Andrei Vasilevskiy to defenceman Victor Hedman, Palat, reigning NHL MVP Nikita Kucherov and even Cooper, most of Tampa Bay’s core remains from the 2015 run to the final.
“We’ve been through this before, a lot of us in that room,” Hedman said. “It’s how you respond to this that’s going to define you as a team. I’m not worried about how our group’s going to respond to this.”
The same can be said across the bubble for the Islanders, whom coach Barry Trotz told before Game 5, “Let’s have fun with this.” The 2018 Cup-winning coach got a hearty response from his team facing elimination, no more noticeably than when captain Anders Lee blocked a shot in overtime with his body because he didn’t have a stick.
The Islanders woke up the next morning with a little extra jump and now feel they got a boost.
“You’ve just got to try to maintain that momentum that we earned from [Tuesday] night and carry that into the next game,” Lee said. “Similarly, we’re on our heels – I guess our backs are against the wall a little bit – and got to come out flying.”
Each coach acknowledged the mental gymnastics that come with figuring out which team feels the most under the gun. Trotz put it simply: “We have one life left. They have two. You tell me which has more pressure.”
That doesn’t mean the Lightning don’t have more of it now, with the Dallas Stars already waiting in the final and the conference championship trophy in the building once again.
“Pressure is what you make of it, so if you want to succumb to it, you can or if you want to thrive in it, you can,” Cooper said. “You’ve got to make a choice. You’ve got to embrace these moments. You don’t get them that often, so enjoy them and don’t let that pressure get to you. Do your best on Thursday night and see what happens.”