TRAIKOS: If The Leafs Split The Core Group, The Lightning Trainer Is Waiting

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Jon Cooper has a message – call it a warning – for anyone who thinks the Toronto Maple Leafs should break their core, just because they once again lost in Game 7 in the first round of the playoffs.

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You will regret it.

“I’m not in that room. I coach the Tampa Bay Lightning,” Cooper said after Saturday night’s 2-1 win over Toronto. “But I know some of your players. I was behind the bank with Morgan Rielly. I was behind the bench with Mitch Marner. I was behind the bench with Auston Matthews.

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“And if these guys were available, I would be first in line to put them on my team.”

This wasn’t Cooper trying to consult with Leafs fans who are wondering if his team will get over the hump. Instead, it was a sign of respect for a team that did the best they could but still ended up falling short in a best-of-seven series that went far.

“This was as balanced a show as you’ll see,” Cooper said. “It wasn’t a 4-0 sweep. We were 3-2 down in the series and we found a way, but it was as close as possible. I personally answered the same questions they are going to answer now three years ago – maybe in a different way, I think, because we had gone to a final a few years earlier – but they gave us everything we could handle.”

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Cooper was referring to the 2019 season, when Tampa Bay finished with the best overall record in the NHL, before being swept by the Columbus Blue Jackets in the first round of the playoffs. The following year, they won the Stanley Cup. And then won again last year.

Could this happen to Leafs?

“It’s a great hockey team, without a doubt,” said Lightning captain Steven Stamkos. “They have all the pieces. It’s not easy. It’s not easy this time of year. We’ve talked about this as a group before. We’ve had some failures in the past and we’ve just moved on and you just have to get over the hump. That’s the thing. Sometimes it becomes mental. But it certainly wasn’t because they aren’t worthy of it. They are.

“They’re a team that was one of the toughest series we’ve probably played in terms of star players, goalkeepers, solid defenders, you’ve come down the list and they have it all. It’s just that we believed in ourselves too. We knew it was going to be a long series. We talked about this from the beginning… Game 7 can go either way.”

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For Toronto, which has now failed to make it past the first round in six straight years, it continues to go in the wrong direction — especially in Game 7 or the elimination games.

In 2018, they lost 7-4 in Game 7 to the Boston Bruins. A year later, they lost 5-1 to the Bruins in Game 7. In 2020, they were defeated 3-0 in Game 5 of a best-of-five to Columbus. And last year, they lost 3-1 to Montreal in Game 7, having won 3-1 in the series.

This year, it looked like Toronto had the team to finally do it. But the Leafs, who had a 3-2 lead in the series, were unable to close the two-time champions, who beat Toronto 4-3 in overtime in Game 6 before taking Game 7 in another close victory.

“The bottom line is that there were eight teams with over 100 points in the Eastern Conference,” Cooper said. “Three of them went to Game 7 and one was the Presidents Trophy (winner), which went into overtime and had to fight back to win his series. And so it was. So there would be four teams over 100 points that would be eliminated in the first round and luckily for us we weren’t one of them, but it took everything to knock out these guys.”

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As for what’s next for the Leafs, at least player Lightning said he wouldn’t be surprised if they followed the success of Tampa Bay.

“Unbelievable team. Series disputed. Closed games,” said Lightning advocate Victor Hedman. “They have some unbelievable players. They were fighting a lot. It was a close game today, it could have gone either way. They are a big group. Their best players are still very young – well, not very young, but still young in this league – and they will get another shot at it.

“Obviously we are very happy to come out on top, but they are a great team. They will go a long way in the future.”

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twitter.com/Michael_traikos

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