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Jon Cooper has to get more out of Lightning

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Each day in the month of August we’ll be examining a different NHL team — from looking back at last season to discussing a player under pressure to identifying X-factors to asking questions about the future. Today we look at the Tampa Bay Lightning.

The Lightning went into the Stanley Cup Playoffs as the clear-cut favorites. After all, they picked up 128 points during the regular season, which was 21 points more than the team that finished in second place, the Calgary Flames.

So when the playoffs kicked off in April, the Bolts were a heavy favorite in the Round 1 matchup against the No. 8 seed Columbus Blue Jackets. The Lightning had Nikita Kucherov, who led the league in scoring and who eventually won the Hart Trophy as the league’s most valuable player. They had three players in the top 12 in scoring and they had Andrei Vasilevskiy, who was named the Vezina Trophy winner.

The Bolts kicked off the playoffs the way you expected them to. They built up a 3-0 lead in Game 1 of their best-of-seven series against the Jackets, but they watched that lead evaporate and they eventually lost the first game. For whatever reason, that stunned them and they were never able to recover.

Yes, there was an injury to their number one defenseman, Victor Hedman. Kucherov also received a suspension during the series. Still, there’s no excuse for a team with 128 points to get swept in the first round.

There’s several reasons why teams fail to live up to expectations, but one of the fingers is usually pointed at the head coach. Jon Cooper, who signed a long-term extension with the team in March, failed to come up with an answer for his team in the playoffs.

At the same time, it’s tough to blame all of the Lightning’s playoff shortcomings on just one person. The quiet whispers questioning Cooper’s future in Tampa were silly. He was never going to lose his job this summer, but that didn’t stop the chatter.

[MORE: 2018-19 Summary | Three Questions | X-Factor]

“When you have the amount of points we had, it’s a blessing and a curse, in a way. You don’t play any meaningful hockey for a long time. Then all of a sudden, you have to ramp it up. It’s not an excuse. It’s reality,” Cooper said after Game 4, per CBC. “That’s how it goes. You have a historic regular season, and we had a historic playoff.

“We couldn’t find our game. It’s that clear. For six days in April, we couldn’t find it. It’s unfortunate because it puts a blemish on what was one helluva regular season.”

Now, it’s up to Cooper and his team to find a solution.

The Lightning will surely be placed in the same territory as the pre-2018 Washington Capitals. Before they won the Stanley Cup, the Capitals’ regular season performances were meaningless. It didn’t matter if they finished first, second or third during the season if they didn’t win it all. Eventually they did, but there were years of criticism that came before their title. The Lightning are in the same boat right now.

How can Cooper get even more from this team?

They led the league in goals, they gave up the fifth-fewest amount of goals, they had the best power play, best penalty kill, three players in the top 12 in scoring and they arguably had the best goalie in the NHL. There’s no denying that this group is talented, but as Cooper has to find a way to push the right buttons to get them to another level in the spring.

As he mentioned in the above quotes, playing meaningless games for months isn’t ideal. With the league, conference and division wrapped up, the Lightning had nothing to play for until the start of the playoffs. It sounds like Cooper learned from that lesson and he needs to find a way to challenge the group down the stretch if they’re running away with the league again.

That’s easier said than done, but Cooper’s one of the smarter coaches in the league. He should be able to turn last year’s disappointment into something positive. It also helps that he has a roster loaded with talent.

MORE:
• ProHockeyTalk’s 2019 NHL free agency tracker
• Your 2019-20 NHL on NBC TV schedule

Joey Alfieri is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @joeyalfieri.

PHT Morning Skate: Hawerchuk’s cancer fight; NHLers on rules

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Welcome to the PHT Morning Skate, a collection of links from around the hockey world. Have a link you want to submit? Email us at phtblog@nbcsports.com.

• Hockey Hall of Famer Dale Hawerchuk is undergoing chemotherapy after being diagnosed with stomach cancer in August, saying he is optimistic as he battles “the fight of my life.” [TSN]

• Before Monday night’s game against Columbus, Mitch Marner paid tribute to seven-year-old Hayden Foulon, who passed away over the weekend after battling leukemia for the past six years. [Sportsnet]

• NHL players talk about the current rules they’d love to see changed: “Losing in a shootout, it’s probably the worst feeling ever. I’d rather, you know, lose it going against your opponents and fighting for it.” [Toronto Star]

Ben Bishop‘s home was damaged turned a tornado that hit the Dallas area on Sunday. A house that Tyler Seguin is currently selling was also damaged. The Stars forward moved to a different home last November. [Dallas Morning News]

• Why the struggling Blues need to find the “buy-in” again. [Post-Dispatch]

• Trade winds may be swirling around Kyle Turris, but his play has been strong for the Predators. [Nashville Post]

• Local boy Sam Lafferty is authoring a really nice story with the Penguins. [Tribune-Review]

• Flames defenseman Travis Hamonic has a lot of “old school” in him. [Calgary Herald]

• Should the Flyers trust Alain Vigneault’s process? [NBC Sports Philadelphia]

• Paul Maurice on how the Jets want to approach shot blocking. [Jets]

• A ranking of “worst to first” jerseys for the Jets. [Hockey by Design]

• The Rangers are “struggling” to find out what’s gone wrong during their current losing streak. [NHL.com]

• Andrew MacDonald has signed a one-year deal with SC Bern of the Swiss league. [Swiss Hockey News]

• Explaining Todd McLellan’s system for the LA Kings. [Frozen Royalty]

• Colby Saganiuk making impression with U.S. Under-17 team. [NHL.com]

• Ovie the Bulldog talks friendships, snacks and what he’d do as NHL commissioner for a day. [Dog o’Day]

• Finally, what’s a number worth? A pretty good haul for the Panthers’ Frank Vatrano:

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Sean Leahy is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @Sean_Leahy.

Russian hockey team fined for coach’s arson threat

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MOSCOW (AP) — A Russian hockey team has been fined after its coach threatened to set fire to a referee’s car.

The Kontinental Hockey League fined Amur Khabarovsk 300,000 rubles ($4,700) after coach Alexander Gulyavtsev shouted ”I’m going to set fire to your car in Perm,” a reference to the Russian city where both he and referee Viktor Gashilov are from.

Gulyavtsev was protesting a penalty awarded against his team in Monday’s game against Dynamo Moscow.

Gulyavtsev later claimed he meant the comments as ”a joke,” adding that ”I just said car, it’s not as if I said apartment.”

However, the KHL ruled the comments breached its rules on insulting and threatening officials. The league warned Amur that cases like this ”tarnish the image” of the league.

Dynamo Moscow won 5-1.

The Buzzer: Tarasenko’s three-point night; Nyquist nets OT penalty shot

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Three Stars

1. Vladimir Tarasenko, St. Louis Blues: The Blues forward had a hand in all three of their goals during a 3-1 defeat of the Avalanche. The loss was Colorado’s first regulation defeat of the season, while St. Louis snapped a four-game losing streak. Tarasenko assisted on goals by Brayden Schenn and David Perron before being on the receiving end of this nice bank pass by Jaden Schwartz:

2. Michael Raffl, Philadelphia Flyers: The Flyers built up a 5-0 lead by the end of the second period en route to a 6-2 win over the Golden Knights, snapping a four-game losing streak in the process. Raffl chipped in a pair of goals and added an assist for his first multi-goal game since March 15, 2016. Oskar Lindblom and Travis Konecny each recorded a goal and an assist, while Brian Elliott turned away 33 shots.

3. Anders Nilsson, Ottawa Senators: The Senators netminder put forth a strong effort during a 2-1 loss to the Dallas Stars. Nilsson stopped 41 shots as the Stars won consecutive games for the first time this season. This was the second straight start for the Swedish netminder where he faced at least 43-plus shots.

Highlights of the Night

• Raffl showed off his moves on this one:

Gustav Nyquist‘s penalty shot goal in overtime put the Blue Jackets over the Maple Leafs 4-3:

Factoids

Scores
Flyers 6, Golden Knights 2
Blue Jackets 4, Maple Leafs 3 (OT)
Blues 3, Avalanche  1
Stars 2, Senators 1

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Sean Leahy is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @Sean_Leahy.

Avs’ Rantanen leaves game with ugly-looking foot injury

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The last thing the red-hot Colorado Avalanche wanted to see was an injury to one of their star players. Off to a 7-0-1 start and atop the Central Division, things have been going well for a team many expect to take a large leap forward this season.

But now they might have to deal with a blow to their lineup after Mikko Rantanen suffered a lower-body injury during Monday’s 3-1 loss to the St. Louis Blues.

The Avalanche forward was skating alongside the wall when his skate got caught in the ice and turned his foot in a very wrong direction. Rantanen, who did not make contact with any Blues player during the play, limped to the dressing room and was later ruled out for the remainder of the game.

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Your foot should not be looking that way…

Rantanen has five goals and 12 points through eight games this season. He’s been relatively healthy in his three full NHL seasons, missing only 16 games since 2016-17.

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Sean Leahy is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @Sean_Leahy.