TRAIKOS: If Leafs break core group, Coach Lightning 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.

I’m not in that room. I coach the Tampa Bay Lightning,” Cooper said after Saturday night’s 2-1 victory over 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 were available, I’d be first in line to put them on my team.”

This wasn’t Cooper trying to consul to Leafs fans who wonder if their team will ever get over the hump. Rather, this was a sign of respect for a team that gave its best, but still ended up falling short in a best-of-seven series that went all the way.

“That was about as close a series as you’re going to see,” Cooper said. “This was not 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 could get. Personally, I answered the same questions that they are going to answer now three years ago, maybe in a different way, I suppose, because we had reached a final a few years before, but they gave us everything we can 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 he won it again last year.

Could that happen with the Leafs?

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

“It’s a team that was one of the toughest series we’ve probably ever played in terms of they’ve got the star players, they’ve got the goalkeeper, they’ve got solid defenses, you got on the roster and they’ve got it all. . It’s just that we also believed in ourselves. We knew it was going to be a long series. We talked about it from the beginning… Games 7 can go either way.”

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For Toronto, which has now failed to advance beyond the first round in six straight years, it continues to go 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 shut out 3-0 in a best-of-five Game 5 against Columbus. And last year, they lost 3-1 to Montreal in Game 7 after leading 3-1 in the series.

This year, it looked like Toronto had the team to finally do it. But the Leafs, who held a 3-2 series lead, couldn’t get past the two-time defending champions, who beat Toronto 4-3 in overtime in Game 6 before taking Game 7 in another narrow win. .

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

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

“Incredible team. Very close series. Close games,” Lightning defenseman Victor Hedman said. “They have some amazing players. They were fighting hard. It was a close 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 shot at this.

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

mtraikos@postmedia.com

twitter.com/Michael_Traikos

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