Lightning need Nikita Kucherov to shake off benching by Cooper

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Jon Cooper owed Anthony Cirelli some serious gratitude on Tuesday night. After all, the heat would have been on if Cooper benched Nikita Kucherov and the Lightning lost to the squalid Senators.

Cirelli scored a sensational overtime goal to secure a win for the Tampa Bay Lightning against the Ottawa Senators. In doing so, Cirelli bailed out Cooper — to an extent — after the Bolts head coach made that highly questionable decision to bench Kucherov for most of the third period and overtime of that 4-3 OT win.

Even with that narrow victory, Cooper’s coaching decision inspired scrutiny. Some Lightning fans poured over tape to study Kucherov’s body language following the victory.

The mistake that likely inspired Kucherov’s benching

Cooper likely benched Nikita Kucherov because of a turnover that opened the door for this Anthony Duclair goal:

People searched for visual cues of frustration from Kucherov because, for the most part, the team wasn’t very transparent about the benching. Kucherov declined to comment after the game, while Cooper’s response was fairly cookie-cutter.

“As a coach you have to make decisions and what was best for us to win tonight. It was our decision,” Cooper said, via Lightning radio analyst Caley Chelios. “He’s a huge part of our team, it could be anybody.”

How will Kucherov respond?

Yes, Kucherov took too much of a risk in trying to beat multiple defenders before that turnover. Cooper gives off the vibe of being fairly player-friendly, but every now and then, he might push the limits, and this seems to be one of those times.

The decision reeks of scapegoating, so Cooper should tread lightly.

While Kucherov isn’t on the outrageous pace that powered him to a 2019 Hart Trophy, he remains the straw that stirs the drink for Tampa Bay. Looking at underlying metrics such as his 2018-19 versus 2019-20 heatmaps at Hockey Viz, you could argue that Kucherov’s been just as dominant in certain ways:

Floating the argument that this was a risky move by Cooper isn’t so outrageous.

After all, Kucherov’s shown evidence that a fiery temperament that likely drives him to dominate might also push him to bristle at slights. Kucherov lost his cool before the hit that drew a seismic suspension during that Round 1 sweep against the Blue Jackets, and he also griped about the quality of his linemates after a rare season where the Lightning missed the playoffs.

So, in benching Kucherov, was Cooper playing with fire?

For what it’s worth, Steven Stamkos shrugged off such concerns heading into Thursday’s game against the Dallas Stars.

Lightning need to put together some strong stretches

One way or another, the Lightning must start to climb the ranks as this telling stretch winds down.

They’ve won five of eight games during a home-heavy December, which is … fine. Still, their 17-12-3 record (37 points) leaves them out of playoff position today. Four of their next five games are at home, so the Lightning must strike while the iron is hot.

Whether Kucherov was left hot-headed by the benching or not.

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.