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Jon Cooper’s ‘heart breaks’ as Lightning drop Game 4 after too-many-men non-call

TAMPA, Fla. — Jon Cooper’s postgame news conference Wednesday night lasted just 2 minutes, 11 seconds. His heartbreak, his anger and his emotions were just too much for him to talk any longer.

He sounded like the coach of a team whose season, and three-year residence on top of the NHL, is in danger. That’s because it is. His Tampa Bay Lightning are now on the brink of elimination after a 3-2 overtime loss to the Colorado Avalanche in Game 4 of the Stanley Cup Final. They need to win three straight against a team they’ve only figured out how to beat once in the first four games of this series. That’s only part of the reason Cooper cut his news conference off after only one question.

But for a man who said he couldn’t talk, he sure said a lot.

He started by bringing up how much he loved the league that he dreamed of being part of as a kid in Prince George, B.C. How it’s run by “amazing people.”

What Cooper wasn’t willing to discuss — at least publicly — was what replays clearly showed, that Nazem Kadri’s OT winner came on a missed too-many-men-on-the-ice call, one that can’t be reviewed or challenged. Kadri seemingly came off the bench four seconds before Nathan MacKinnon came off the ice, a the difference in distance of 42 feet. But all Cooper would say is that his team, the one built on guts and guile, should still be fighting.

There’s no recourse, no do-overs. Just the pain and what-ifs.

“You know, I’ve been part of some heartbreaking losses and defeats to the teams that took us out and been with a group that just fights, fights and fights,” Cooper said. “And they fought their way to a third Stanley Cup Final in a row. And in a cap era when … when it’s so damn hard and the rules are put against you because the league wants parity.

“And I love that about the league. And that’s what makes it tougher. And just watch this team, what they’ve gone through and the battling that’s gone on. And we’re all in this together. Players, coaches, refs, everybody. But this one is going to sting much more than others, just because it was taking on … it was potentially … I don’t know … It’s hard for me. It’s going to be hard for me to speak. I’m going to have to speak. I’ll speak with you tomorrow. You’re going to see what I mean when you see the winning goal. And my heart breaks for the players. Because we probably still should be playing.”

There was a delayed reaction on the Kadri winner by almost everyone, with his wrist shot sneaking under the right arm of Andrei Vasilevskiy and sticking to the netting atop the goal. Only Bowen Byram raised his arm initially, saying he saw the puck flip the net up. But it was almost like everyone in the sellout crowd at Amalie Arena didn’t want to believe it. The players appeared in shock.

“A tough one to swallow,” Victor Hedman said.

The relentlessly resilient championship group — the one that refuses to die — has their season on life support, needing to win three in a row, starting Friday in Denver.

“It’s extremely tough to get to this position and then when your backs are against the wall at the end, it’s the toughest mountain to climb,” captain Steven Stamkos said. “There’s nothing to lose now. We’ve got to go out and have the game of our season next game. We know it’s going to be difficult. We know they’re a heck of a team over there. But we’re not going to quit. We’ve gone too far. Guys have sacrificed so much to get to this position. So we’ll regroup here and go win a game on the road.

“We’re not just going to lay over.”

If any group can pull it off, it’s this one. There’s a reason why several legends, including Wayne Gretzky, compared this Lightning team to the 1980s Islanders dynasty. But even that group eventually ran out of gas, ran into too many injuries, ran into a hungry Oilers team that would take the reigns. It’s fair to wonder how much Tampa Bay has left in the tank. Could it be too much hockey? Too beat up? Or just too much Avs?

Here was Anthony Cirelli playing with basically one good arm, having left the game near the end of the second perio following an awkward fall. Top right-shot defenseman Erik Cernak tried several times to give it a go after blocking a Nathan MacKinnon shot, but could only watch from the bench. Nikita Kucherov, believed to have hurt his knee at the end of Game 3, was playing through pain. Brayden Point tried to come back, playing the first two games of the Cup Final, but has been in street clothes the last two.

We’ll find out after the season just how bad guys are banged up, and what surgeries are planned. None of them are using it as a crutch, so a few might need crutches in a few weeks.

“No one outside the dressing room — you guys sometimes you think you know. You don’t,” Stamkos said of the injuries. “It’s challenging for both teams. You have guys playing through a lot of stuff right now. Guys are just battling.”

Here was Mikhail Sergachev, logging a team-high 32 minutes, 50 seconds, having to shoulder more because Cernak missed more than half the game. He was on the ice for that final shift, with both him and Ryan McDonagh out there for 1:38. The fresh Kadri buzzed right between them, finding an opening and finishing.

“It was an extended shift in our zone,” Sergachev said. “I couldn’t gap up and the guy flew in with a lot of speed, put it under my stick and just put it in the chicken wing on Vasy. So it’s a hard one to take. I couldn’t gap up there, couldn’t really do anything, so it’s on me.”

This one isn’t on Sergachev or McDonagh. There will be complaints about the officials in this one, and it’ll dominate the headlines, with the league’s response acknowledging it was a judgment call and that nobody saw the too-many men.

But the Lightning aren’t losing this series because of just that one call. The Avalanche have been better for a good portion of these four games, and were dominant in that overtime period, outshooting Tampa Bay 11-3. Forget six skaters on the ice. It likely felt like there were seven or eight at times.

“Everyone looked exhausted on their end of it,” Avalanche goalie Darcy Kuemper said.

The Lightning had found their mojo in Game 3, and very well could have tied this series up in the swinging Game 4. They had their chances, including in the first period when they had a 1-0 lead and a late power play. But for a Tampa Bay team that’s won their share of series with special teams, they’re costing them when they need it the most. They’ve got only one power-play goal all series (1-for-15) and have given up six (6-for-14), including Nathan MacKinnon’s tying goal early in the second period.

“We just can’t let frustration get under our skin and play with frustration,” Sergachev said. “We just got to play hard and believe we can do it.”

The Lightning have been at the brink before in these Cup runs, including their Game 7 victory over the Islanders in last year’s conference finals to their 3-2 series deficit in this year’s first-round series against Toronto. They were able to find a way both times, with Stamkos emotionally telling teammates during the second intermission of Game 6 against the Leafs, “This is not where it ends.”

But Colorado is an entirely different animal, the best team they’ve faced in the three-year Cup runs. The Lightning are vying for a dynasty, and these Avs are trying to form a legacy, and they’re on the cusp of a championship now.

“The feeling sucks now obviously, but the series wasn’t won tonight,” Stamkos said. “We know what it feels like to be in their shoes, to have a chance to win at home. Not an easy thing to do, pretty nerve-wracking day. For us, we go in, our backs against the wall, we’ve done it more in these playoffs, and we’ll have to do it again. We can’t sit here and feel sorry for ourselves. It’s a hard-fought game. It stings right now but we go to go there and win a hockey game and bring it back here.”

The Lightning aren’t done, not yet. But even for the gutsiest team, this is a punch that’s hard to come back from.

(Photo of Nikita Kucherov: Geoff Burke / USA Today)

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