Ahead of Tuesday’s game against the Maple Leafs, Tampa Bay head coach Jon Cooper was ruminating on the idea of “adversity.”
Cooper is one of those smart guys who seems happy just to have a job in the NHL – probably because he should. If the Lightning’s first-round playoff implosion last April happened in Toronto or Montreal, they’d have invited him to take the first train out of town. By strapping him to the front of it.
Every time you wonder, “Why would any hockey player want to play in Florida?" take a look over at Jon Cooper. That’s why – Florida forgives.
The year’s chastened Tampa team is less exciting, less potent, less consistent and, just maybe, better.
“I don’t know. How do I say it? We’ve gone from maybe teenage kids to young adults,” Cooper said. “There’s a lot more responsibility in our game.”
“Teenage kids” – who does that remind you of?
Lacking “responsibility” in their game – ring any bells?
It’s right there. I just can’t put my finger on it.
This time around, the Toronto you want to believe in, but can’t quite bring yourself to, showed up for a change. The Leafs controlled play for long stretches and beat the Lightning 2-1.
However you rate them, given their quality and their recent history, you probably don’t want to face the Lightning in the first round of this year’s playoffs.
So guess who the Leafs will face in the first round of the playoffs, if they make it that far?
(Ed. Note: From now on, people should presume there is an “if there are any” prefixed to any mention of “playoffs.” In a week or two, people should presume a “soon to be cancelled.”)
Since the coronavirus is the only thing anyone talks about any more, it’s probably best to get that out of the way first. There were small differences in Tuesday’s first home game since everyone on our side of the ocean got serious about this thing.
They didn’t unfurl the usual giant flags during the national anthem and pass them through the crowd. Though the game was announced as a sellout, there were many empty seats in the lower bowl – hundreds of them. Apparently, some people are not waiting to be banned from gathering in groups.
Game-ops showed a how-to-avoid the coronavirus video, though they did it long before anyone was in their seats and again long after they’d gotten there. How were those late arrivals to know not to share their popcorn with strangers?
The farcical media restrictions put in by the NHL are already coming apart. Players were banned from speaking to TV reporters at the boards for in-game hits, but continued to talk to them in the hallway outside the dressing room between periods.
And the difference is what exactly? Is cold air more of a petri dish than the recycled variety you find in the bowels of stadiums?
These rules won’t last as stricter measures start to seem inevitable, which is for the best. Their only function is to make the people at the NHL who came up with them look silly.
That’s the temporary off-ice panic taken care of. Now for the perpetual one happening on it.
Toronto and Tampa have this much in common – they will surprise you. It’s often more of a shock than a delight.
The Leafs nearly take themselves out of the playoffs against Buffalo and Carolina, then go down south against their direct competition and pull themselves back in.
Immediately thereafter, they go out to play the bottom-feeders of California. They spend a week there making it look like West Coast nets are the size of a microwave oven.
So, unsurprisingly, they come back to Toronto against a proper club and storm into the contest like the mid-eighties Oilers.
The Leafs so dominated the first 10 minutes of this game that it seemed the ice surface had been halved. Toronto had nearly two dozen good attempts on goal before Tampa had one. The Lightning didn’t record a shot on net until 11 minutes had passed.
This was Good Toronto, Interested Toronto, the Toronto that shows up whenever Mitch Marner’s Instagram comments become too cruel.
Tampa had a couple of decent excuses – Steven Stamkos and Victor Hedman, neither of whom were playing. But still. The Lightning spent the entire first period skating around like they were looking for a loonie buried under the ice. They were outclassed.
You know how this goes, right?
Despite all this dominance, Toronto scored only once. Late in the second, the Leafs defence fell asleep for a moment and Tampa lanced it like a boil. Tie game.
Both teams spent stretches of the third in survival mode. Bad news. Only one of them made it. At times, watching them scramble about in front of the net with their matched colour schemes, it got hard to tell who was who.
Maybe Toronto and Tampa are the same team? Packed with stars; an offensive battle cruiser; under a lot (of quite different sorts) of pressure. Also, each has the tendency to disappoint you when you start looking at it too closely. They defy scrutiny. Or, at the least, react very poorly to it.
If Toronto ends up matched with Tampa (and it’s hard to believe it can end up matched with anyone else), we’ve got ourselves a good elevator pitch – a couple of losers head out looking for respect, and only one makes it back alive.
Toronto-Tampa in 2020 is the Rodney Dangerfield of postseason matchups. It’s a blockbuster, but maybe not the sort fans of either team were hoping for.
If they ever manage to play it, that series might be real fun. The sort where people aren’t just playing for a trophy, but for their careers.