Tampa Bay Lightning coach Jon Cooper said he looked at his salmon salad every time he went back to the coach’s office to prepare for yet another overtime period Tuesday.
As the game morphed from a matinee to an evening contest, Cooper managed to postpone his postgame meal until finally Brayden Point ended the fourth-longest game in NHL history with a goal at 10:27 of overtime five, giving the Lightning a 3-2 win over the Columbus Blue Jackets in Game 1 of an Eastern Conference first round series.
“I thought that was going to, I don’t know, play with the karma, so I stayed hungry,” Cooper said during his video conference after the dramatic win.
Hunger. It’s something many speculated was lacking when the Lightning faced the Blue Jackets in the 2019 playoffs. Things had come too easy for the Lightning. They couldn’t handle a little adversity, like an injury to star defenseman Victor Hedman or the standout play of then-Blue Jackets goalie Sergei Bobrovsky.
This is a new season and maybe a new Lightning team. There was no Presidents’ Trophy or record-tying, 62-win regular season. There wasn’t a top seed in the Eastern Conference for them, even after the NHL gave them a shot to play a round-robin tournament for it as part of the league’s return from its pandemic-induced pause.
This Lightning team was actually 17-13-4 in December prior to a 10-game winning streak. Tampa Bay’s been without Steven Stamkos since late February and has had to integrate two trade acquisitions – Blake Coleman and Barclay Goodrow – that cost the Lightning a haul of futures while proving Lightning general manager Julien BriseBois’ win-now mentality.
Tampa Bay’s reward for all it went through in the regular season was a rematch with the Blue Jackets. And on top of that Columbus’ new starting goalie Joonas Korpisalo put on a show for the ages. It wasn’t until their 88th shot that the Lightning finally accomplished what they weren’t able to do once last April.
Teams with less gumption might’ve surrendered without solving Korpisalo, who made 46 saves through the first four overtimes.
“I think that’s just the mindset, you got to focus on your next shift and not the end result. Focus on that, on how you’re playing and what you got to do and whatever happens,” Point said.
Cooper said he must’ve told his team “100 times” not to sacrifice defense for offense. That sunk in. The Lightning showed that they learned from last season what it takes to advance in the postseason. Perennially among the NHL’s elite for most of the past decade, even making the Cup final in 2015, the Lightning haven’t won the Cup since 2004. They know there’s still a long way to go, but perhaps the persistence, the resilience and grit the Lightning showed in Game 1 against Columbus will be repeatable enough times to keep them standing until October.
“These are best-of-7, so there’s a long way to go in this series,” Cooper said. “But for us to get one, just the way we did it, it’ll give us confidence moving forward that you’re being rewarded for all the work and the discipline and the mental fortitude going forward.”