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TRAIKOS: If Leafs split core group, Lightning coach waits

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Jon Cooper has a message — call it a warning — for anyone who thinks the Toronto Maple Leafs should break their core, just because they lost yet again in Game 7 in the first round of the playoffs.

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You will regret it.

“I’m not in this room. I coach the Tampa Bay Lightning,” Cooper said after Saturday night’s 2-1 win over Toronto. “But I know some of their players. I was behind the bench with Morgan Rielly. I’ve been behind the bench with Mitch Marner. I’ve been behind the bench with Auston Matthews.

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“And if these guys become available, I’ll be the first to put them on my team.”

It wasn’t Cooper trying to consult with Leafs fans who wondered if their team would ever overcome the difficulty. Rather, it was a sign of respect for a team that gave as well as they could, but still fell short in a best-of-seven series that went the distance.

“It was as seamless a series as you’re going to see,” Cooper said. “It wasn’t a 4-0 sweep. It was we were down 3-2 in the series and we found a way, but it was as close as it gets. I personally answered the same questions that they will answer now three years ago – maybe in a different way, I guess, because we had gone to a final a few years earlier – but they gave us everything what we could handle.

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Cooper was referring to the 2019 season, when Tampa Bay finished with the best overall record in the NHL, before being swept by the Columbus Blue Jackets in the first round of the playoffs. The following year, they won the Stanley Cup. And then won it again last year.

Could this happen to the Leafs?

“They’re a great hockey team, no doubt about it,” Lightning captain Steven Stamkos said. “They have all the parts. It is not easy. It’s not easy at this time of year. We have already talked about it in groups. We’ve had a few failures in the past and we’re moving on and you just have to get over the hurdle. That’s the thing. Sometimes it gets mental. But it certainly wasn’t because they weren’t worth it. They are.

“This is a team that’s been one of the toughest series we’ve probably played in in terms of star players, they’ve got the goalkeeper, strong defenders, you’ve got it down the list and they’ve got it all. C “It’s just that we were believed in too. We knew it was going to be a long series. We talked about it from the start… Game 7s can go both ways.

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For Toronto, which has now failed to get past the first round in six consecutive years, it continues to go the wrong way, especially in Game 7 or the playoffs.

In 2018, they lost 7-4 in Game 7 to the Boston Bruins. A year later, they lost 5-1 to the Bruins in Game 7. In 2020, they were shut out 3-0 in Game 5 of a best-of-five against Columbus. And last year, they lost 3-1 to Montreal in Game 7 after leading 3-1 in the series.

This year, it looked like Toronto had the team to finally do it. But the Leafs, who had a 3-2 series lead, couldn’t eliminate the two-time defending champions, who beat Toronto 4-3 in overtime in Game 6 before winning Game 7 in another. narrow victory.

“At the end of the day, there were eight teams with 100+ points in the Eastern Conference,” Cooper said. “Three of them went to Game 7 and one was the Presidents Trophy (winner), who went to overtime and had to fight to win his streak. And it was even like that. So he was going there having four teams with over 100 points that were going to be knocked out in the first round and luckily for us we weren’t one of them, but it took everything to knock those guys out.

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As for what’s next for the Leafs, at least the Lightning player said he wouldn’t be surprised if they followed Tampa Bay’s success.

“Amazing team. Hard-fought series. Close games,” Lightning defenseman Victor Hedman said. “They have amazing players. They were fighting hard. It was a tight game today, it could have gone either way. It’s a great group. Their best players are still very young – well, not very young, but still young in this league – and they’re going to get another chance.

“Obviously we’re very happy to have come out on top, but they’re a great team. They will go far in the future. »

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