During the third period of Saturday’s eventual 5-3 loss to the Buffalo Sabres, Tampa Bay Lightning head coach Jon Cooper presented the hockey world with a rare sight. Superstars Nikita Kucherov, Brayden Point, and Steven Stamkos were stuck firmly on the bench, as Cooper decided he’d seen enough of their efforts.
Cooper didn’t shy away from the decision after the game. He essentially explained that Kucherov, Point, and Stamkos weren’t “adhering” to the team’s high standards for effort.
Maybe Cooper wasn’t being completely literal when he said that “in the third period, they weren’t giving us the best chance to win,” but either way, the goal was to improve effort. Lightning beat writer Chris Krenn shared Cooper’s full comments, which you can read below:
Here’s Jon Cooper’s full response on Kucherov, Point and Stamkos not playing in the third period. pic.twitter.com/F42uCOArxG
— Chris Krenn (@Chris_Krenn) March 4, 2023
Defensive lapses for Lightning vs. Buffalo, and in general lately
The Sabres and Lightning exchanged power-play goals in the first period, with Kucherov and Stamkos assisting on Point’s 39th tally of the season. It was the second period where things unraveled, and at times those three forwards looked a little slow to close in on goals from Vinnie Hinostroza, Tyson Jost, and Jack Quinn.
Were those lapses severe enough on their own to justify benching integral pieces of the Lightning’s two Stanley Cup wins and three straight Final appearances? Probably not. That said, there are a few factors to consider.
Most obviously, there’s some logic to the dual purpose of “sending a message” and also resting some veteran players, as the Lightning will complete a back-to-back set when they face the Hurricanes on Sunday.
Cooper may also be concerned about a recent slump. With this loss to the Sabres, the Lightning have dropped four games in a row, salvaging a single standings point in the process. Overall, the Lightning have lost seven of their last nine games, generating a 2-4-3 mark since Feb. 15.
While it’s highly unlikely the Lightning will lose enough ground to fall out of a looming first-round matchup against the Maple Leafs, Tampa Bay would certainly like to enter the playoffs on a high note.
In the past, Cooper’s been reluctant to practice “load management,” even when the Bolts already had a Presidents’ Trophy locked down. That said, without a ton to gain, maybe he can work in a little rest for aging stars such as Stamkos and Victor Hedman down the stretch?
As much as anything else, Cooper may be concerned that top players believe they can just “flip a switch” and tighten up in time for the postseason. Most of the Lightning’s defensive stats look solid, but this team clearly has high standards. Take a look at their heat maps (via Hockey Viz) from the last three seasons and you’ll see that the Lightning have gradually started to allow more chances from dangerous areas of the ice.
Considering the Lightning’s ability to generate offense, that defensive decline isn’t necessarily the end of the world. Yet, when you set standards so high, it might be the sort of slippage that prompts you to send a message by keeping top scorers on the bench.