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John Romano: Lightning had harsh lessons along the way to the conference final

By John Romano, Tampa Bay Times on

Published in Hockey

There is no switch to be flipped, and no script to be followed.

A hockey team does not simply change its identity from dazzling one day, to gritty the next. The transformation is more organic and gradual, with plenty of small signposts along the way.

Like, for instance, the day the Lightning told Nikita Kucherov to sit his butt down.

It seems like forever since Kucherov was benched by coach Jon Cooper in the middle of a December game and it's probably largely forgotten in the Tampa Bay locker room. But if you're looking for a moment that helped solidify what the Lightning have become, that particular episode fits nicely on the timeline.

The Lightning were practically a .500 team clinging to a one-goal lead against Ottawa when Kucherov took an unnecessary risk that led to a game-tying goal. It was exactly the type of careless play that Cooper had been preaching about since the players had arrived in training camp three months earlier. And at that particular moment, he'd had enough.

So Cooper pulled the league's reigning MVP early in the third period, and sat him for the entire overtime.

 

At the time, it seemed like a gutsy decision and the subsequent success has not changed that risk. Cooper was in danger of losing the devotion of his moody goal scorer but, at the same time, he showed every other player that the same strict standards would be applied to everyone.

The Lightning went into that game with a 16-12-3 record.

Since then, they have gone 37-12-3, including the postseason.

Did that decision change the course of a season? Certainly not by itself. Cooper has said the first days of training camp were the real turning point. Others might suggest the spring acquisitions of Blake Coleman, Barclay Goodrow and Zach Bogosian created the biggest change.

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