TRAIKOS: If Leafs break up core group, Lightning coach is waiting

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Jon Cooper has one message — call it a warning — for anyone thinking that the Toronto Maple Leafs should break up their core, just because they once again lost 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 following Saturday night’s 2-1 win against Toronto. “But I know some of their players. I’ve been behind the bench with Morgan Rielly. I’ve been behind the bench with Mitch Marner. I’ve been behind the bench with Auston Matthews. 

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

This wasn’t Cooper trying to consul Leafs fans who are wondering if their team is ever going to get over the hump. Rather, this was a sign of respect for a team that gave as good as it could, but still ended up falling short in a best-of-seven series that went the distance.

“That was as evenly matched a series as you’re going to see,” said Cooper. “This wasn’t a 4-0 sweep. This was we were down 3-2 in the series and we found a way, but it was as close as it can be. I personally answered the same questions that they’re going to answer now three years ago — maybe in a different way I guess, because we had gone to a final a few years earlier — but they gave us everything that we can handle.”

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

Could that happen to the Leafs?

“It’s a great hockey team, no doubt,” said Lightning captain Steven Stamkos. “They’ve got all the pieces. It’s not easy. It’s not easy at this time of the year. We’ve talked about it as a group before. We’ve had some failures in the past and we just move on and you just got to get over the hump. That’s the thing. Sometimes it becomes mental. But it certainly wasn’t because they’re not worthy of it. They are. 

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

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For Toronto, which has now failed to advance past the first round in six consecutive years, it keeps 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 were shutout 3-0 in Game 5 of a best-of-five to Columbus. And last year, they lost 3-1 to Montreal in Game 7 after being up 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, could not close out the two-time defending champions, who beat Toronto 4-3 in overtime in Game 6 before taking 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 battle back to win their series. And that’s how even it was. So there was going to be four teams with 100-plus points that were going to be out in the first round and fortunately for us we weren’t one of them, but it took everything to knock these guys out.”

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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.

“Unbelievable team. Tough-fought series. Close games,” said Lightning defenceman Victor Hedman. “They’ve got some unbelievable players. They were fighting hard. It was a close game today, it could have gone either way. They’re 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. 

“Obviously, we’re very happy to come out on top, but they’re a great team. They’re going to go a long ways in the future.”

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