DENVER – Jon Cooper paused for a good 15 seconds before answering the only question he would ask after Game 4 of the Stanley Cup Finals.
After beating the Colorado Avalanche 6-2 and cutting the series deficit in half just two days prior on home ice, the Lightning beat their opponent through most of Game 4 on Wednesday, only to succumb to heartbreaking winner Nazem Kadri in time.
The Lightning were on the brink of elimination—and they still are—looking down the barrel of having to win three games in a row to keep their season, and their next chance at survival came less than 48 hours later in Denver.
And to make matters worse, Kadri’s winner caused controversy, as official NHL scorecards listed six Avalanche skaters on the ice at the time of the goal.
Cooper’s tone on Wednesday was a eulogy. He was depressed. Thoughtful, almost. As Cooper later explained, the emotions he experienced immediately after the crushing defeat did not allow him to answer the questions awaiting him in the cramped Amalia Arena press room.
So he left, leaving behind a sense of completion for a series that was far from over.
However, the next day could not have been more different.
Cooper was the same again, answering questions with a smile and demonstrating the very trait that had propelled his Lightning lineup to the abyss of a dynasty: turning the page.
The disappointment of the fourth game washed away. “Water under the bridge” is how Cooper described it. And the team’s performance in Game 5 the following night proved just that fact: Tampa were deflecting every hit from the Avalanche, cashing in on every little chance that came their way, and capitalizing on yet another iconic performance from Andrey Vasilevsky.
Avalanche outplayed and outplayed and outplayed the Lightning in 60 minutes. But it didn’t matter. Tampa had no intention of quitting, somehow getting off the mat after a near-knockout and entering another round of this heavyweight bout.
“We were here,” Cooper explained after the game.
“We used to lose 3-1? No. But we’ve been in situations where we know the feeling of a knockout game. We were on both sides.”
The experience only helped solidify the resolve of his team of “gamers,” as Cooper describes them.
When asked to explain what this means, the answer is very simple.
“You just looked at the definition,” Cooper said.
“I don’t know what else I can say to describe the guys. You’re losing in the series, in a great environment for the home team. And how do you show the skill of the game? Everything we just did.”
On Friday night, Lightning’s backs were possibly pressed against the wall as tightly as possible. But the team didn’t think so. They saw Game 5 as an opportunity to pull together, rise to the challenge, and write another chapter in their ongoing story.
Their performance strengthened him.
“We talked about it today that we had no choice,” Stamkos explained to the liquidation threat.
“For us, it was do or die. Sometimes you catch yourself looking a little ahead, and this band did a great job of focusing on the present. And it had to come here in a very difficult place to win and just play a good game to give yourself a chance. And that’s what we did tonight”
The battle is certainly not over. By no means. The Lightning need to win the remaining two possible games of the series – one at home, where they just waived an OT decision, and a potential Game 7 in Denver in front of a foaming-at-mouth crowd for championship glory.
The odds are not in their favor. But they don’t have to be. This Lightning team is finding a way to stay. And in Game 5, they did just that.