Jon Cooper sets offensive stars as Lightning’s skid continues

BUFFALO, NY – Jon Cooper is always careful not to overreact. He’s a former lawyer, so he deals with the facts, and he only takes action after he thinks he’s made a good case. He often lets his players decide the outcome of a game and is extremely tactful about knowing which buttons to push.

So the Lightning coach’s decision to insert the team’s top three forwards — Steven Stamkos, Brayden Point and Nikita Kucherov — in the third period of Saturday’s game against the Sabers was unmistakably calculated and no doubt long in the making.

His team is struggling defensively, and its 5-3 loss at KeyBank Center was its fourth straight and fifth in the past six games. In those losses, the Lightning (37-20-5) allowed an average of more than five goals per game. match.

Cooper has put faith in his team in the past. Valleys are common during the 82-game regular season. Cooper has faith that his team will fix the issues and get healthy defensively come the playoffs. And they have done that, reaching the Stanley Cup finals the past three seasons.

But after the Sabers nearly put Saturday’s game away with three goals in the second period, Cooper had seen enough and ended the afternoon with his big three.

“As coaches, you have to put your team in the best position to win, and 99.9% of the time those guys give us the best chance to win when they’re on the ice,” Cooper said. “Just felt in the third period that they didn’t give us the best chance to win.”

The Sabers extended their lead to 5-1 on forward Jeff Skinner’s power-play goal less than a minute into the third period before forward Alex Killorn scored twice to bring the Lightning back within two.

“This team has been unbelievable for a decade and you take the three (Stanley Cup) Finals,” Cooper said. “Well, there’s a reason why a lot of that happened. And here we set a standard that everybody adheres to, and it’s not an election. It’s everybody. And that’s how it was (Saturday).”

“(Stamkos, Kucherov and Point) are an extremely important part of our team, but for 20 minutes (Saturday) I thought the other guys could get it done and they almost did.”

Stamkos was a team-worst minus-3, his day ended with a check on the offensive end that led to a rush the other way that resulted in forward Jack Quinn’s goal with 14 seconds left in the second period to give Buffalo a 4 -1 to lead.

Point, who had a team-high seven shots on goal, was minus-2. He scored the game’s first goal on a power play with 6:32 left in the first period, his team-high 39th goal of the season. Kucherov was minus-1.

Cooper’s benching of the three stars, who followed the Lightning’s 5-5-4 since early February, sent a message to the entire locker room.

“Everybody just needs to get better,” forward Anthony Cirelli said. “Obviously Coop is trying to send a message there, but that goes for the whole team. Every single one of us has got to lift their game and just have to work a little bit harder and be better for the whole 60 (minutes).

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“But those (three) guys are a big part of our team. So we’ll get them (today against the Hurricanes).

The big three have not been the only culprits in the defensive struggles. But in the dressing room, the top players set the example. Tampa Bay didn’t become a championship team until its best offensive players bought in to play defense.

For the fourth straight meeting between the teams, a Sabers team that is one of the most dynamic in the league drew the Lightning into a back-and-forth scoring battle. The teams combined for an average of 10 goals in their three previous meetings, and while the Lightning won two, they didn’t feel good about their defensive efforts.

On Saturday, they gave too many uncontested looks. Whether it was leaving forward Vinnie Hinostroza exposed in front for a 2-1 lead in the second after the Sabers won a puck battle behind the net, or Kucherov and Stamkos converging with defenseman Mattias Samuelsson in front, leaving forward Tyson Jost open to convert an uncontested backhand from just outside the box to make it 3-1 in the second, the Lightning looking slow, lost and disinterested in their finish.

“It’s just been a weird couple of weeks,” forward Pat Maroon said. “Even all the games we’ve won, it just hasn’t felt the same.

“I think it’s little, little mistakes that are costing us right now, that are killing us right now. And it’s just a flyby there and not stopping the house there, not breaking it out, turning pucks over. Those things come to to cost you and (the puck) will be in the back of the net before you know it. So those are easy solutions.”

Contact Eduardo A. Encina at Follow @EddieintheYard.

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