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2024 Stanley Cup Playoffs

Cooper Challenges Lightning with Florida Panthers on Verge of Sweep



Lightning panthers
Tampa Bay Lightning coach Jon Cooper speaks to the media ahead of Game 1 against the Florida Panthers on Sunday morning in Sunrise. // Photo @GeorgeRichards

TAMPA — Lightning coach Jon Cooper knows his team is in deep against the Florida Panthers in this playoff series.

And it could be a short-lived postseason run for the Lightning if the Panthers have their way.

Florida can end this opening-round series in a four-game sweep on Saturday.

The Panthers come into Saturday’s Game 4 holding a commanding 3-0 lead in the best-of-7 series.

On Thursday night, Cooper said he challenged his players in their postgame meeting.

“It is tough when you get into a situation like this,” Cooper said following Florida’s 5-3 win at Amalie Arena.

“What do you say at this moment? The talk was, we want the believers to show up to the rink tomorrow. If you’re not going to believe, you don’t have to come. We’ll see who shows up.”

Aside for a few stretches, the Panthers have been the dominant team in this series, bottling up the high-octane Lightning and, aside from captain Steven Stamkos, holding its biggest stars off the scoresheet.

Florida has not blown this series out, but it has certainly been the better team.

“We never dominated a lot of games this year, that’s not really who we are,” Florida coach Paul Maurice said postgame. “We have a crazy one here or there, had nine go in here where they were all insane or unusual. We’re in the grinder. Most of our games are hard played and battled.”

While Cooper talked about a first period Thursday in which he thought his team “deserved a better fate” down 1-0, Florida did just about all it wanted in those opening 20 minutes.

Yet the Lightning were thisclose to tying the score on its second of what were four power play chances when Anthony Cirelli’s tip-in goal was taken off the board upon offside video review.

Tampa Bay has been outscored by a total of four goals in three losses — with two of those being into an empty net — meaning the Lightning has kept things tight.

And the Panthers are certainly OK playing just that way.

Now, Florida comes in ready to end this thing come Saturday.

Maurice said the focus, and his team’s style, does not change just because the stakes do.

At least he hopes that is the case.

“I don’t think the hockey necessarily changes, but your perception does,” Maurice said Friday morning.

“There is more intensity, right? More on the line. The desire, which is sometimes a dangerous thing for the team that’s got the three and is closing out. And then there is also, in this situation, the desperation of the other team.

“But I’m not sure the hockey itself actually changes, other than those two things than can play into the game. These games are played very fast and very hard. But not any different than the other games.’’

The Panthers lost Game 4 at home to the Toronto Maple Leafs last year when they had the chance to sweep the second-round series, ending that set in Ontario.

Florida did take care of business in Game 4 of the Eastern Conference finals, sweeping the Carolina Hurricanes off Matthew Tkachuk’s goal in the final moments.

The Panthers won all four of those games against Carolina by a single goal.

Sort of sounds familiar, eh?

“We always approach a series that we’re ready to play seven games, no matter what,’’ Aaron Ekblad said Friday. “At the end of the day, we’re going to come in and play our game no differently than we normally do. We do not expect anything to come easily. It is going to be difficult, just like this entire series.’’

Added Sam Reinhart: “We don’t expect tomorrow to be any easier on us. Every game has been hard fought all the way to the end. And that’s the way it is going to keep being.”

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