The Cooper era begins; Tampa Bay Lightning versus New Jersey Devils preview

Jon Cooper begins his NHL coaching career tonight... If he can find the locker room by game time.

WHERE: Tampa Bay Times Forum, Tampa, Florida
WHEN: 7:30 PM EDT | | TICKETS: Check Availability
MEDIA: Sun Sports (cable), 970 WFLA (radio)

The Lightning, while in Limbo, went 1-1-0. That makes the state of Limbo one of the more winning coaches in Tampa Bay Lightning team history (kudos to Martin Raymond, Daniel Lacroix and Steve Thomas for getting the players through the past two games while coaching was in a state of flux). That being said, let's not forget the old boss with tonight's transition to the new boss: Lightning Shout had a great piece the other day paying thanks to Guy Boucher.

That being said, this is formally Jon Cooper's team now. The rein of Cooper's Law begins tonight as the Bolts face the New Jersey Devils. The question leading into this game is: Will Jon Cooper find the locker room by game time?

That actually puts him in good company; owner Jeffrey Vinik used to remark how he was often getting lost in the Tampa Bay (nee St. Pete) Times Forum several weeks after taking over the franchise.

At any rate, there's a chance that Cooper's first game will feature an 11-7 roster split, and it won't be Marc-Andre Bergeron who will be the 7th defenseman if that happens. Andrej Sustr has been in Tampa all week being evaluated by the team. He'll participate in the pre-game skate at Times Palace and will likely be a game-time decision.

The New Jersey Devils come into town in 2nd in the Atlantic Division behind the juggernaut Pittsburgh Penguins. They're seeded 7th in the Eastern Conference, a full 8 points ahead of the Lightning. The thing is that the race - specifically in the Atlantic - is tightening. While the Devils are in the playoffs as it stands, the New York Rangers and New York Islanders are both at 35 points - with the Rangers currently seeded 8th and the Isles seeded 9th. The Devils may be safe, but if they stumble they could easily be pushed out of the playoffs entirely by their divisional foes.

The Lightning have a long, improbable climb to make in the last month of the season if they are going to live up to Jon Cooper's expectations: Six points behind the Rangers and Isles, three points behind (tanking) Carolina for 2nd place in the Southeast Division, a full nine points behind Winnipeg for the division lead...

In a way, I've almost written off this game as a win for the Lightning (not to underestimate the Devils, who have tended to frustrate the bolts for the past two seasons). The Lightning are 9-7-1 at Times Palace this season, and tend to rise to the occasion most of the time in front of the home crowd. Add the coaching change factor and I figure two points are coming here... That, or another grand collapse like the Montreal Canadiens game a couple of weeks ago. If it's the latter, then you'll see changes over the next few days leading up to the 3 PM trade deadline on April 3rd; the Bolts cannot move forward with the same lackluster effort from certain personnel.

The real test for the Lightning is when they go back on the road late next week. With a 5-11-0 record on the road and a habit of starting games late (read: the third period), it's on the road that will either gives the Bolts a chance to move up in the standings or improve draft lottery chances.

Mathieu Garon gets the start in net for the Lightning. I don't think it's necessary to elaborate about his inconsistency lately (he won on Tuesday against the Sabres but had been pulled twice in the span of two games last week). Part of his issues has been the play of the team in front of him; the same issues that have plagued Anders Lindback and Cedrick Desjardins. If the effort is there from Lightning skaters, goaltending shouldn't be an issue.

Then again, they are facing Martin Brodeur tonight, and that always makes goaltending an issue. I'll leave it at that.

Other Previews

Tampa Bay Lightning official team preview

Full game coverage on SB Nation

Tickets -- Check Availability