BUFFALO, NY — Jon Cooper is always careful not to overreact. He’s a former lawyer, so he deals with the facts, and he only acts after he thinks he’s made a good case. He often lets his players determine the outcome of a game, and he shows great tact in knowing which buttons to press.
So the Lightning coach’s decision to bench the team’s top three forwards — Steven Stamkos, Brayden Point and Nikita Kucherov — for the third period of Saturday’s game against the Sabers was undeniably calculated and no doubt long to come.
His side are in shock defensively and their 5-3 loss at the KeyBank Center was their fourth in a row and their fifth in their last six games. In those losses, the Lightning (37-20-5) allowed an average of more than five goals per game.
Cooper has already trusted his team. Valleys are common during the 82-game regular season grind. Cooper is confident his team will iron out the issues and become solid defensively come playoff time. And they did, reaching the Stanley Cup Finals for the past three seasons.
But after the Sabers nearly missed Saturday’s game with three second-period goals, Cooper saw enough and finished the afternoon for his three big goals.
“As coaches, you have to put your team in the best position to win, and 99.9% of the time those guys give us the best chance of winning when they’re on the ice,” Cooper said. . “I just felt that in the third period they weren’t giving us the best chance to win.”
The Sabers extended their lead to 5-1 on forward Jeff Skinner’s power play goal less than a minute into the third period before forward Alex Killorn scored two goals to bring the Lightning back to less than two.
“This team has been amazing for a decade, and you’ve won all three (Stanley Cup) finals,” Cooper said. “Well, there’s a reason a lot of things happened. And we’ve set a standard that everyone adheres to, and it’s not about choosing. It’s everyone. And so, it was like that for (Saturday).
“(Stamkos, Kucherov and Point) are an extremely important part of our team, but for 20 minutes (Saturday) I thought the other guys could do it, and they almost did.”
Stamkos was the worst on the team minus-3, his day ending with a failure at the attacking end that led to a rush the other way that resulted in striker Jack Quinn’s goal with 14 seconds left. in the second period to give Buffalo a 4-1 lead.
Point, who had a team-high seven shots on goal, had a minus-2 differential. He scored the first goal of the game on the power play with 6:32 left in the first period, his team-high 39th goal of the season. Kucherov was at 1 minus.
The benching of three-star Cooper, who had accompanied the Lightning 5-5-4 since early February, sent a message to the entire locker room.
“Everyone has to be better,” said forward Anthony Cirelli. “Obviously ‘Coop’ is trying to get a message out there, but that goes for the whole team. Each of us has to raise our game and work a little harder and be better for 60 (minutes).
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“But these (three) guys are an integral part of our team. So we’re going to have them (today against the Hurricanes).
The big three weren’t the only culprits in the defensive struggles. But in the locker room, the best players lead by example. Tampa Bay didn’t become a champion team until its best offensive players became defensemen.
For the fourth straight meeting between the teams, a Sabers team that is one of the most dynamic in the league took the Lightning to a high-scoring home-and-away game. The teams have combined for an average of 10 goals in their previous three meetings, and although the Lightning won two, they didn’t feel good about their defensive effort.
On Saturday, they gave away too many undisputed stares. Whether it’s leaving forward Vinnie Hinostroza uncovered up front for a 2-1 second lead after the Sabers won a puck battle behind the net, or Kucherov and Stamkos converging on defenseman Mattias Samuelsson up front and leaving forward Tyson Jost open to convert an uncontested backhand just outside the crease to make it 3-1 in the second, the Lightning looked slow, lost and disinterested in their end.
“It’s just been a weird few weeks,” forward Pat Maroon said. “Even every game we’ve won, it just hasn’t been the same.
“I think it’s small, small mistakes that are costing us right now, killing us right now. And it’s just a flyover there and not stopping the house there, not breaking it, flipping the pucks. This stuff is going to cost you and (the puck will) be in the back of the net before you know it. So these are easy solutions.
Contact Eduardo A. Encina at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow @EddieintheYard.
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