After the Tampa Bay Lightning won Game Three at the Madhouse on Madison to take a two games to one lead over the Chicago Blackhawks in the Stanley Cup Final, Jon Cooper said his team was playing with house money. His actions showed he believed that completely.
Of course they were, because they took the first road game in Chicago to steal back the home ice they had lost when they lost the opening game in the series in Tampa. Cooper wasn’t giddy about this chip he and his team had, but with an apparent injured goalie, the one game lead gave the Lightning a little room to breathe. This gave Cooper the chance to roll the dice. House money, baby.
So what does Cooper do in Game Four? He starts his 20 year-old rookie goalie, Andrei Vasilevskiy. Maybe this is more of a gamble than strategy, but the brilliance is there nevertheless.
What Happens on the Ice, Stays in the Locker Room
Anyone who has witnessed the play of Ben Bishop in Games Two and Three knows that he is not 100%. It is clear that Bishop is injured. Is it his knee? Is it his back? Is it a groin pull? It could be anything from his head to his toes. One thing that is apparent is that Jon Cooper has control of his locker room. Since the alleged injury questions began to surface after Game Two through the surprise announcement of Vasilevskiy in Game Four, there must have been hundreds of questions to Cooper, his assistant coaches, players, equipment managers and even the Lightning beat writers about Bishop and his possible injury.
To a man, not a peep was uttered. Credit must be given to the various media members covering the series as they came up with about a thousand different ways of asking the question on everyone’s mind. “What is wrong with Bishop?” The Lightning personnel were on lockdown. The vault was closed. Heck, even Brian Boyle got into it when posed a question about Bishop, he answered that question with a question of his own, “Is Bishop hurt?” laughing all the way back to the locker room.
Some in media were becoming downright indignant, yet the bond didn’t break. So, if there were any doubts about the control Cooper had of this organization or of his locker room, throw those out the window. He had to count on this if the decision was to roll out the ‘Rook’ in the net in Game Four.
Risky Gamble or Brilliant Strategy
Cooper said that once the Stanley Cup Final is complete, we’ll all be clued in on Bishop’s injury. Again, assuming that there is or was an injury. Let’s give in to this cat and mouse game and say that Bishop is hurt. First of all, let’s give him the kudos for playing through the boo-boo in Game Three.
After that game put the Lightning up one game in the series, Victor Hedman heaped the ultimate praise by saying this about his goalie, “He is a Warrior”. Bishop seemed to labor after each shot. There appeared to be times when he couldn’t get upright, yet he stopped 35 of Chicago’s 37 shots.
So we’re all in agreement that Bishop is hurt. Cooper has a decision to make. Does he risk aggravating the injury by continuing to play Bishop after Monday night’s game or does he give the start to his 20 year-old rookie?
Here is where the strategy comes in. Cooper already thinks he’s playing with house money. So he’s thinking he can afford the risk of starting Vasilevskiy. Worse case, the Lightning come back home for Game Five tied in the series two games apiece. Best case, his boys play all out for the kid in net and steal another road win. House money.
Another thing to consider is that with Game Five going back to Tampa on Saturday, missing Game Four gives Bishop four full days of rest. In starting Vasilevskiy, Cooper stated emphatically that Bishop will play again in this series. That should tell us that the injury is real but not severe enough to question Bishop’s ability to play within the week. He did after all, participate in Wednesday’s morning skate.
Talk about killing two birds with one stone. I will lay out how Coop just got five birds with this one. First, he gives Vasilevskiy real Stanley Cup Final experience and darn it if the kid didn’t almost steal a win at the Madhouse on Madison against arguably the best team in the NHL over the last five years.
Secondly, Cooper gives Bishop four day’s rest. We all hear how the Stanley Cup Playoffs are such a grind. How players literally get the crap beat out of them for eight weeks. How it is a test of will more than skill. To get your goalie four days rest cannot be underestimated. Brilliant.
Additionally, this move gave the rest of the Lightning team an issue to rally around. Wednesday night, they jump to the aid of the young Russian in their net. If Vasilevskiy continues to start the Lightning rallying around him will continue. If Bishop is healthy enough to play on Saturday, the team will rally around their warrior, Bishop. Thankful for the rest, Bishop should play like he did in Game Seven against Detroit or Game Five against New York or even Game Seven against New York.
For those who need reminding, all three of those games ended with the same score. Tampa 2, opponents zero. Bishop won all three with the identical 2-0 score. That is what is possible as a result of the strategic play made by Cooper on Wednesday.
Series for the Ages
This series is not only tied at two games each right now, it is dead even on the ice. One goal has separated the victor in each of the first four games. That hasn’t happened since 1968. To give you perspective that was one year after the NHL expanded from the original six teams to twelve teams.
Through four games, both teams have scored nine goals each. Both teams are also dead even in blocked shots with 60 for each side. Shots on goal are virtually even as Tampa has 104 shots on goal to Chicago’s 107. Hollywood couldn’t have scripted a more even match.
Having rolled all this out, I am not saying the goalie strategy by Cooper guarantees Tampa the Stanley Cup. Far from it, they still have to continue to play the mighty Chicago Blackhawks. Coached by Joel Quenneville and with superstar players on their roster like Jonathan Toews, Patrick Kane, Patrick Sharp, Marian Hossa and Corey Crawford, this team is loaded. If you think that Chicago will lay down and not fight tooth and nail to win this Cup, you haven’t been paying attention.
It now comes down to a best of three with every possibility of a full seven game series. Chicago has the pedigree from their experience while Tampa has the hunger that comes from their youth. In the next few days we will see if Cooper’s strategy works for Tampa. I am saying this strategy is brilliant not because it guarantees Lord Stanley’s Cup for the Lightning but because it does guarantee the best chance for the Lightning to hoist the Cup. After all, isn’t that the best a team can expect from their coach?