Jon Cooper had his doubts. How could anyone blame him?
The Tampa Bay Lightning coach had just watched superstar Steven Stamkos crash into the net in Boston and break his right leg against the right post. His team was off to a 12-4-0 start, led by thanks in large part to 14 goals and 23 points from Stamkos.
"We kind of had a good feeling the way we were going and then to watch your guy go down, that's tough, Cooper said. "I'll be honest, we sat there for 24 hours, had a pity party and thought our season might be over."
Looking back at the season as it actually unfolded, Cooper took a deep breath and said, "Ooh, that might be for the book later — later in life." Somehow, despite Stamkos missing 45 games and Martin St. Louis asking for and getting his wish to be traded, the Lightning defied the odds to make the playoffs. They'll open the first round Wednesday against the same Montreal Canadiens that they got their season's most important victory against.
That came at Bell Centre on Nov. 12, one day after losing Stamkos against the Bruins. Defenceman Matt Carle called it "almost a blessing" to get back on the ice right away. Cooper saw the 2-1 victory as a way to eliminate any doubt.
"I think deep down inside, we all looked at each other in the room and said, 'Wow, we just beat Carey Price and the Montreal Canadiens, we can do this,"' Cooper recalled. "And I think that was probably when our heads — right away — it was 24 hours, we knew we could play in this league."
Sure, as Cooper pointed out, the Lightning weren't predicted to do much this season. But beyond exceeding low expectations with a coach who took over last March, this team not only survived but thrived amid the kind of twists and turns that could've been crushing.
Even more adversity has come lately, with injuries to goaltender Ben Bishop and centre Valtteri Filppula and the arrest of winger Ryan Malone for DUI and cocaine possession.
Cooper insisted the Malone situation wouldn't be a distraction. Even if it is, it's not like this season hasn't been full of them, at least ones around the rink, and yet the Lightning have pressed on.
"It's been fun," Stamkos said late in the season in Toronto. "This group of guys that we have is something that I think can be special this year. We're believing in each other and everyone is stepping up. We've dealt with adversity all year whether it's been injuries or trades, guys old and young have done a great job."
Actually, one old guy, one tall guy, one former lawyer and a lot of young guys.
The old — in hockey players' age — is St. Louis, who replaced the bought-out Vincent Lecavalier as captain at age 38, in his 13th season with the Lightning. St. Louis put up 22 goals and 22 assists in the 45 games Stamkos missed.
By the time Stamkos returned March 6, St. Louis was gone, traded to the New York Rangers for Ryan Callahan and draft picks. The Laval, Que., native, left off Team Canada by general manager Steve Yzerman for the second straight Olympics, said he had contemplated leaving before.
"Obviously he's been there for 14 years so you always thought he'd end his career there, but things change and things happen," former Lightning captain and current Philadelphia Flyers forward Vincent Lecavalier said.
Before leaving, St. Louis helped keep the Lightning afloat. But he wasn't alone.
One major reason Tampa Bay didn't fall apart was six-foot-seven Bishop, who finished in the top 10 in every major statistical category. Bishop suffered an upper-body injury last week, and it's possible Anders Lindback will at least have to start Game 1 Wednesday and perhaps more.
In front of Bishop for the vast majority of the season, the Lightning got major contributions from a handful of 23-year-olds — forwards Ondrej Palat and Tyler Johnson and defencemen Victor Hedman and Radko Gudas — and 24-year-old winger Alex Killorn. Palat, Johnson and Gudas were teammates on the 2012 Calder Cup-champion Norfolk Admirals, something that Cooper, the coach of that team, thinks helped this group come together.
"I think the one thing (is) a lot of these guys have been through is this situation, and I know it's the American Hockey League, but most of these players have all been through a Calder Cup run and they've all done it together," he said. "A lot of these players have been in this spot before."
So has Filppula, who won the Stanley Cup with the Detroit Red Wings in 2008. The 30-year-old centre became Tampa Bay's leading scorer after St. Louis was traded away, and his contributions made a US$25-million, five-year deal look like one of the best deals from last summer.
In Stamkos, Hedman, Teddy Purcell and Nate Thompson, the Lightning have a few players still around from 2011, when former coach Guy Boucher guided them to the Eastern Conference final, before losing in seven games to Tim Thomas and the Boston Bruins.
"We have a good mix of veteran guys and young guys," Stamkos said. "You just try to learn from those guys that I played with in the past that have instilled those morals and values of what they want a team to be."
One factor in the current success is Cooper, a 46-year-old former public defender who became one of the hottest young names in coaching by capturing the 2010 United States Hockey League title with the Green Bay Gamblers and then leading the Admirals on a 29-game winning streak on the way to the Calder Cup.
Cooper got a head start by coaching the final 16 games of the lockout-shortened 2013 season, which gave him a chance to go through some early growing pains and have a full off-season and training camp to get to know this team.
That looks like a brilliant decision now, as Cooper has guided the Lightning through a tough season and become a Jack Adams Award front-runner in the process.
"He knows when to press and when to stay positive," defenceman Matt Carle said of Cooper. "For not coming up through the traditional hockey route, he knows the game very well, and more importantly I think he's a people person and he knows his players. As a player you want to play well for him and you want to play well for each other in here, and that's been kind of the case all season."