TRAIKOS: If Leafs split the core group, the Lightning coach waits

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Jon Cooper has one message — call it a warning — to anyone who thinks the Toronto Maple Leafs need to break their core just because they lost again in Game 7 in the first round of the playoffs.

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You’re going to regret it.

“I’m not in that room. I coach the Tampa Bay Lightning,” Cooper said after Saturday night’s 2-1 win against Toronto. “But I know some of their players. I’ve been behind the couch with Morgan Rielly. I’ve been behind the couch with Mitch Marner. I’ve been behind the couch with Austin Matthews.

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“And if those guys became available, I’d be first in line to put them on my team.”

This wasn’t Cooper trying to consult Leafs fans wondering if their team will ever get over the hump. Rather, this was a sign of respect for a team that gave their best, yet fell short in a best-of-seven series that went on to win the entire game.

“That was as balanced a sequence as you’re going to see,” Cooper said. “This wasn’t a 4-0 sweep. This was we were 3-2 down the series and we found a way, but it was as close as it gets. I personally answered the same questions they’ve had for three years now. 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 can handle.”

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

Could that happen to the Leafs?

“It’s definitely a great hockey team,” said Lightning captain Steven Stamkos. “They have all the pieces. It is not easy. It’s not easy at this time of year. We have already discussed it as a group. We’ve had some failures in the past and we’re just moving on and you just have to get over the bump. That’s it right for him. Sometimes it gets mental. But it certainly wasn’t because they aren’t worth it. They are.

“They’re a team that’s been one of the hardest series we’ve probably played in terms of they’ve got the star players, they’ve got the goalkeeper, solid defenders, you’ve got the list down and they’ve got everything. It’s just, we believed too in ourselves. We knew it was going to be a long series. We talked about it from the start… Game 7s could go either way.”

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For Toronto, which hasn’t made it past the first round for six straight years, things keep going the wrong way – especially in Game 7s or 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 shutout Game 5 3-0 of a best-of-five by Columbus. And last year, they lost 3-1 to Montreal in Game 7 after leading 3-1 in the series.

This year, it seemed like Toronto had the team to finally do it. But the Leafs, who had a 3-2 lead in the series, were unable to shut down the two-time defending champion, who defeated Toronto 4-3 in overtime in Game 6 before winning Game 7 in another tight win.

“The bottom line is there were eight teams with over 100 points in the Eastern Conference,” said Cooper. “Three of them went to Game 7s and one was the Presidents’ Trophy (winner), who went to overtime and had to fight back to win their series. And so it was. So there would be four teams with 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 eliminate these guys.”

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

“Incredible squad. Hard-fought series. Close matches,” said Lightning defender Victor Hedman. “They have some incredible players. They were fighting hard. It was an exciting game today, it could have gone either way. They are a great group. Their best players are still very young – well, not very young, but still young in this league – and they’re going to get another chance at this.

“Of course we are very happy to be on top, but it is a great team. They will come a long way in the future.”

mtraikos@postmedia.com

twitter.com/Michael_Traikos

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