Lightnings Jon Cooper is looking forward to taking on the Maple Leafs

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Jon Cooper looked around and smiled.

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One of the last times he was inside the Coca-Cola Coliseum was back in 2012, when he was coaching the Norfolk Admirals to a AHL championship over the Toronto Marlies.

“I had to go find the locker room we went into, where they tucked us in the corner (of the arena),” Cooper said. “And gosh, I remember where we were spraying the champagne. I love being here.”

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It’s not just the arena. Cooper has an even bigger affection for Toronto as a whole.

This is it, said the Tampa Bay Lightning head coach. This is why you coach, why you play, why you’re a fan of the game. As the son of a die-hard Maple Leafs fan — Cooper grew up idolizing Bobby Orr and the Bruins — the Prince George, B.C., native remembers when it was just Montreal or Toronto games on the TV, and where your allegiances ran deeper than religion. So he understands and appreciates the history and the constant attention that comes with being in the so-called Centre of the Hockey Universe.

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“I had to ask him last night who he’s cheering for and thankfully he had the right answer,” Cooper said of his dad. “There’s just something unique about (the Leafs) in such a special way. Growing up from watching Wendel Clark to Darryl Sittler to Auston Matthews, it’s a city that is proud of their hockey, passionate about their hockey — maybe almost over the top — but when you’re in this game and you’re coaching at the highest level, there’s no better place to play than in a spot where everybody cares the most. And that’s why it’s great to play Toronto.”

The Lightning, who won its final game of the series and finished five points back of Toronto, came close to avoiding the Leafs and playing the Hurricanes in the first round. But Cooper didn’t want that. He has been patiently waiting for this match-up. Practically dreaming about it.

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There’s something different about playing against the Leafs than there is with playing the Hurricanes or Florida Panthers or even the Washington Capitals. There’s the passion, for sure. But there’s also the hype. The kind you usually have to wait until the Stanley Cup final to experience.

“This is a first for us. Probably a long time coming,” Cooper said. “Two similar teams that have been at the top of the standings for a number of years now and I think it’s good for hockey. I think this is two established franchises that have been at the top of their game for a decade or so. It’s about time we met in the playoffs.”

For Cooper, it’s the next-best thing to coaching in the Olympics. He was robbed of that experience when the NHL decided not to send players to Beijing this year. In the process, he was robbed of his breakout moment on the world stage. Because as much as winning back-to-back Cups earned him validation as one of the best coaches in the NHL, being able to coach Team Canada to a gold medal would have put him on an even shorter list of the greatest coaches of all time.

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Toronto isn’t the world stage. But all eyes will be on him in the first round.

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This is the must-watch series of the playoffs. This is the marquee matchup. Not just in Toronto, but in the entire hockey world. These are two of the most gifted offensive teams in the league. This is arguably the deepest collection of superstars.

It’s Auston Matthews and Mitch Marner against Steven Stamkos and Nikita Kucherov. It’s John Tavares and William Nylander against Brayden Point and Anthony Cirelli. It’s Victor Hedman against Morgan Rielly. It’s Andrei Vasilevskiy against Jack Campbell.

It’s the two-time defending champs against an up-and-comer that has been trying desperately to get over the hump. It’s speed versus speed, skill versus skill, talent versus talent.

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“These are the stars of the game,” said Cooper. “It should be a lot of fun.”

Well, that depends on what style of game we’ll see.

While Tampa Bay and Toronto combined for 17 goals in their previous two games against one another, Cooper isn’t necessarily expecting this series to be an offensive free-for-all. “One of the games is bound to be like that,” he said. “I don’t expect the series to be like that though.”

Indeed, as much as fans would like to see a back-and-forth display of skill and speed, the Lightning didn’t rely just on finesse to win consecutive championships. This is a scrappy bunch. They know how to shut things down and keep it low-scoring. With a fourth line that includes Corey Perry and Pat Maroon, they are happy to take the body and play physical.

As such, Keefe said he expects it to be a “very physical and borderline violent series,” something Cooper didn’t disagree with.

“Just rewind the tape to last year at this time when we played Florida,” said Cooper. “I always described it as two cars going 100 mph/hour going right at each other and it was who’s going to flinch first. But the first round is always chaos. It’s organized chaos.

“The guys are pumped up, everybody’s jacked.”

And why wouldn’t they be? It’s Tampa Bay versus Toronto.

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