Maple Leafs’ Keefe, Bolts’ Cooper Engaging in Some Mind Games

With everything that is happening on the ice between the Toronto Maple Leafs and the Tampa Bay Lightning, it’s fair to think that the storylines would come from the play of the players and the outcomes of the games.

But following Game 2 and Game 3 of this series, both head coaches made some comments — be it about their respective teams or the opposition — that have stolen some of the headlines when it comes to this chippy first-round series.

It’s a game that the Maple Leafs are all too familiar with considering some of the sound bites that came from Lightning head coach, Jon Cooper, the last time these two teams met in the postseason.

Sheldon Keefe Toronto Maple Leafs
Sheldon Keefe, Head Coach of the Toronto Maple Leafs (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

A year removed from that series and this time, both Cooper and Sheldon Keefe are making their voices heard in post-game press conferences as they push for every inch in a series that hasn’t given either team much room. It’s safe to say that both coaches are entering into a game of mental warfare.

Jon Cooper Breaking Down Series, Centers

It was a rollercoaster first couple of games for both sides. The Maple Leafs got pumped in Game 1 at home, before they came back and secured a series tie with the Game 2 victory. On both ends of it, Cooper had interesting responses to his team’s play.

Following Game 1, in which the Lightning landed a 7-3 thumping on the Maple Leafs, Cooper stuck with the what seemed to be a backhanded, “The Leafs might win the series.”

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However, he wasn’t so positive about his opposition following the Game 2 loss to the Maple Leafs. Cooper responded to a question about the series by stating, “It’s a seven-game series, it’s not a one-game one-and-done. We’ll be alright.”

But his comments about the Maple Leafs didn’t stop there. In fact, Cooper pumped the tires of his centre depth and undercut that of the Maple Leafs by saying that his team also has good depth down the middle.

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“So how many centers deep are we,” he asked the reporter in response. “Give me Point, Cirelli and Paul all day. Against anybody in the league.”

The Maple Leafs moved Ryan O’Reilly to the third line centre after Game 1 and it has since paid off. It’s also what drove the question about centre depth as the Maple Leafs have won 52.4% of the face-offs in this series so far.

Call it what you will, but Cooper’s comments will surely circulate within the Maple Leafs’ room. While it may not affect those involved, as it shouldn’t, it is yet another attempt made by the Lightning’s bench boss to infiltrate the minds of the opposition and get any sort of edge in the series.

With it, Maple Leafs’ bench boss Keefe fired back.

Sheldon Keefe Says Lightning Experience Manipulating Officiating

Following another rollercoaster of a game in Game 3, that came with it’s own twists and turns and choose-your-own-adventure, the Maple Leafs’ head coach had his own little press conference worth remembering — even after the Maple Leafs walked away with a 4-3 overtime victory.

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The comments came following a questionable call and reversed call on a five-minute major that was handed to Morgan Rielly. More rough stuff ensued and Auston Matthews ended up being engaged in his first NHL fight with Steven Stamkos as a result. Both Matthews and O’Reilly were taken off the ice and penalized because of the scrum and it led to Keefe making a comment the veteran play by the Lightning players.

“The fight itself, that’s a classic example of a veteran championship team like Tampa Bay manipulating the officials and taking advantage of a situation, right? I mean they know that we’re basically already going on the power play because of the Kucherov situation so it’s a free-for-all,” said the Maple Leafs’ head coach.

Keefe stated his thoughts on the situation with a half-hearted smile on his face the entire press conference. Like Cooper, it was a tactical move to gain some kind of edge within the series — even if it is one call going his way come playoff time.

What Comes From Keefe, Cooper Comments?

More than anything, it’s a tactical move by the two head coaches in a series that has been chippier than most. Could Keefe get an extra call? Absolutely. Could Cooper get in the heads of the Maple Leafs’ centres? Maybe. At the end of the day, it’s both sides looking to disrupt the opposition.

Sheldon Keefe Toronto Maple Leafs
Sheldon Keefe, Head Coach of the Toronto Maple Leafs (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

Still, it could affect their respective team’s negatively as well. Cooper mentioned that the Maple Leafs could take the series in some romanticized sarcasm after Game 1, while Keefe could see the refs make the extra call against his club after mentioning the manipulation of officiating by the Lightning.

The series is far from over, just three games in. As for the mental warfare between Keefe and Cooper, it’s only just beginning. Without Darryl Sutter in the playoffs, this could be the most entertaining back and forth we’re going to see between coaches this postseason as both are witty and outspoken — at least so far.

With the series headed in the direction it’s going, don’t expect either side to let up when it comes to the play on the ice and the pettiness off of it.