Jon Cooper benching offensive stars as Lightning’s slide continues

BUFFALO, NY – Jon Cooper is always careful not to overreact. He’s a former lawyer, so he deals with facts, and he takes action only after he thinks he’s put together a good case. He often lets his players decide the outcome of a game and is extremely tactful in knowing which buttons to push.

So the Lightning coach’s decision to bench the team’s top three forwards — Steven Stamkos, Brayden Point and Nikita Kucherov — for the third period of Saturday’s game against the Sabers was unmistakably calculated and undoubtedly a long time coming.

His team is struggling defensively, and the 5-3 loss at KeyBank Center was their fourth straight and fifth in the last six games. In those losses, the Lightning (37-20-5) allowed an average of more than five goals per game.

Cooper has put his faith in his team before. Valleys are common during the 82-game regular season. Cooper has faith that his team will work out the kinks and get healthy defensively come the playoffs. And they’ve done it, making it to the Stanley Cup Finals the past three seasons.

But after the Sabers nearly put Saturday’s game away with three goals in the second period, Cooper had seen enough and ended the afternoon for his Big Three.

“As coaches, you have to put your team in the best position to win, and 99.9% of the time, those guys give us the best chance to win when they’re on the ice,” Cooper said. “Just felt in the third period that they didn’t give us the best chance to win.”

The Sabers extended their lead to 5-1 on forward Jeff Skinner’s power-play goal less than a minute into the third period before forward Alex Killorn scored twice to bring the Lightning back within two.

“This team has been incredible for a decade and you make the three (Stanley Cup) Finals,” Cooper said. “Well, there’s a reason why a lot of that has happened. And we’ve set a standard here that everybody adheres to, and it’s not pick and choose. It’s everybody. And that’s how it was for (Saturday).”

“(Stamkos, Kucherov and Point) are an extremely important part of our team, but for 20 minutes (Saturday) I thought the other guys could make it happen and they almost did.”

Stamkos was a team-worst minus-3, his day ending with a check in the offensive end that led to a rush the other way that resulted in forward Jack Quinn’s goal with 14 seconds left in the second period to give Buffalo a 4-1 lead.

Point, who had a team-high seven shots on goal, was minus-2. He scored the game’s first goal on a power play with 6:32 left in the first period, his team-high 39th goal of the season. Kucherov was minus-1.

Cooper’s benching of the three stars, who followed the Lightning’s 5-5-4 since early February, sent a message to the entire locker room.

“Everybody just has to get better,” forward Anthony Cirelli said. “Obviously the ‘Coop’ is trying to send a message there, but that goes for the whole team. Every single one of us has to raise our game and just work a little bit harder and get better for the whole 60 minutes.

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“But those (three) guys are a big part of our team. So we’ll get them (today against the Hurricanes).”

The big three have not been the only culprits in the defensive struggles. But in the dressing room, the top players led by example. Tampa Bay didn’t become a championship team until its best offensive players bought into playing defense.

For the fourth straight meeting between the teams, a Sabers team that is one of the most dynamic in the league drew the Lightning into a back-and-forth scoring battle. The teams combined for an average of 10 goals in their three previous meetings, and although the Lightning won two, they didn’t feel good about the defensive effort.

On Saturday, they gave too many unchallenged looks. Either it was forward Vinnie Hinostroza uncovered in front for a 2-1 lead in the second after the Sabers won a puck battle behind the net, or Kucherov and Stamkos converged on defenseman Mattias Samuelsson in front, leaving forward Tyson Jost open to convert an uncontested backhand from just off the field to make it 3-1 in the second, the Lightning looked sluggish, lost and disinterested at the end.

“It’s just been a weird few weeks,” forward Pat Maroon said. “Even all the games we’ve won, it just hasn’t felt the same.

“I think it’s little, little mistakes that are costing us right now, killing us right now. And it’s just a pass there and don’t stop the house there, don’t break it out, turn the puck over. Those things are going to cost you, and (the puck) is going to be in the back of the net before you know it. So it’s easy to fix.”

Contact Eduardo A. Encina at Follow @EddieintheYard.

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