TAMPA — Jon Cooper fought back tears as he sat down for his postgame media availability after the Tampa Bay Lightning lost 3-2 in overtime to the Colorado Avalanche in Game 4 of the Stanley Cup Final at Amalie Arena on Wednesday.
There he was, emotions bubbling over with his team, which won the Cup in each of the previous two seasons, on the brink of eliminating trailing 3-1 in the best-of-7 series.
“I’ve been part of some heartbreaking losses and defeats to teams that took us out and been with a group that just fights, fights and fights,” the Lightning coach said. And they fought their way to a third Stanley Cup Final in a row.
“And in a (salary) cap era when … when it’s so [darn] hard and the rules are put against you because the League wants parity, and I love that about the League. And that’s what makes it tougher.”
Cooper then implied the winning goal, scored by Avalanche forward Nazem Kadri at 12:02 of overtime, should not have counted but did not say why.
“You’re going to see what I mean when you see the winning goal,” he said. “My heart breaks for the players because we probably still should be playing.”
Moments later, the normally chatty Cooper excused himself. He said he would elaborate more on Thursday.
A subsequent statement released by NHL Hockey Operations indicated the suggestion was the Lightning thought the Avalanche had too many men on the ice for Kadri’s goal.
“A too many men on the ice penalty is a judgment call that can be made by any of the four on-ice officials,” the statement said. Following the game, Hockey Operations met with the four officials as is their normal protocol. In discussing the winning goal, each of the four officials advised that they did not see too many men on the ice situation on the play.
“This call is not subject to video review either by Hockey Ops or the on-ice officials.”
Even in his limited comments, Cooper was right in his inference that the quest for a three-peat certainly got tougher.
Consider this: Since the start of the 2020 Stanley Cup Playoffs, the Lightning are 19-2 in the postseason after a loss. But now there is no longer any wiggle room. Win three consecutive games, or the season is over.
The first task at hand is winning Game 5 at Ball Arena in Denver on Friday (8 pm ET: ABC, ESPN+, CBC, SN, TVAS). There is no looking beyond that, Tampa Bay captain Steven Stamkos said. As cliche as it might be, it is now one game, one period, one shift at a time.
“Listen, it’s extremely tough to get to this position,” the forward said, his voice a mixture of frustration and exasperation. “And then, when your backs are against the wall, at the end, it’s the toughest mountain to climb. So, there’s nothing to lose.
“Now we’ve got to go out and have the game of our season the next game, so we know it’s going to be difficult. We know they are a heck of a team over there, but it’s not like we’re going to And like I said (before), guys have sacrificed so much to get to this position, so we’ll regroup here.”
Tampa Bay’s goal of heading back to Colorado with the series deadlocked at two games apiece evaporated when Kadri scored. It was the 13th shot of overtime; the Lightning had three of them.
They’ve made a habit of being resilient during the 2022 playoffs. Tampa Bat trailed the Toronto Maple Leafs 3-2 in the best-of-7 Eastern Conference First Round before winning the final two games. It lost the first two games against the New York Rangers in the Eastern Conference Final before reeling off four consecutive victories.
As impressive as those accomplishments were, Lightning defenseman Victor Hedman agreed this will be the toughest task to date.
“Obviously being down 3-1, we haven’t seen that before,” he said. “But if there’s one thing I know about this group, it’s that we respond well to adversity. We’re a resilient group. We believe in what we have.
“We’ll take it game by game. There are ups and downs in the playoffs, especially in the Final like this. This is a tough one to swallow.”
Even with the bad taste lingering with he and his teammates, Hedman said the Lightning aren’t giving up.
Far from it.
“I don’t know about a wasted opportunity,” he said. “We’re right there. Game goes to overtime, they got the break. It’s a tough loss, but we’re still not out of it.
“We just have to get up tomorrow, go up there and focus on the one game.”