Fear is not a concept that has been associated with the Tampa Bay Lightning in the past, but neither has head coach Jon Cooper.
And while Cooper has not been considered a traditionalist in his road to joining the Lightning, he has remained so in one aspect of the game, building a team with grit and character.
That includes allowing his players to drop the gloves in an effort to tilt momentum in their favor and sticking up for one each other when opponents begin to press. The Bolts have used that mentality when reintroducing themselves to competitors during the 2013-14 campaign.
“We want to make sure that it’s not going to be fun to play us,” Bolts defenseman Radko Gudas said. “We want to play physical and we want to be tough.”
Saturday’s game against the Bolts’ division rival, the Boston Bruins, was a perfect example of the message they are trying to send and it happened right from the beginning of the contest. B.J. Crombeen threw down his gloves, challenging the Bruins Gregory Campbell to a duel, two minutes into the game.
Crombeen, who led the NHL in major penalties and ranked sixth in the league for penalty minutes last season, has been a leader in this role since joining the team and his advice is often sought at practice, as the rest of Tampa Bay joins the cause.
Nate Thompson, a member of the gritty and hard-hitting fourth line, and defenseman Radko Gudas, are also two players Cooper frequently depends on when it comes to showing teams they have some bite, even when the scoreboard tells a different story.
In the middle of arguably their worst showing to date and down, 4-0, with 20 minutes still left to play, it seemed as if the Lightning did not have much left, but Thompson and Gudas rose to the occasion.
“Pardon the pun, but we still had some fight in us,” Cooper said. “There are two guys who don’t care how much time is left on the clock, there’s still a game going on and they’re going to compete until the end.”
With 13:35 left to play, Thompson had the first go-at-it when he and Adam McQuaid drew fighting majors. Then the Lightning witnessed a rematch of Gudas and veteran Jarome Iginla from the season opener at TD Garden on October 3.
“That’s two tough guys trying to get into each other’s kitchen,” Cooper said. “They are trying to stick up for their team and themselves, it’s their bravado.”
Despite the five-goal deficit, the Bolts’ fourth-line toughness and Gudas’ on-ice presence are critical concepts for this year’s roster. The bouts were also considered a teachable moment as they embark on the rest of their 82-game schedule.
“I think it showed our team’s fight and character,” Thompson said. “We’re not going to get pushed around no matter what the score is.”
“It was too bad that it was 5-0,” Gudas said. “But it could happen if the score was 2-1 or 1-1, it could happen any day. It’s just the type of game that’s going on and we want to set the tone.”
Gudas played in 22 games with the Bolts last season and is making his sophomore campaign a statement year. Often one of the team-leaders for hits, his skill goes far beyond the coach’s praise, averaging nearly four minutes more for ice time through his first eight games this year compared to 2012-13.
The 23-year-old Prague, Czechoslovakia native credits his style of play mostly to his father with some North American lessons mixed in.
“I grew up watching him play all around Europe,” Gudas said. “Probably most of the parts are from him, but then the last four years I’ve learned some parts from North America.”
While for Thompson the minutes have not been on the higher-end of the scale, Cooper has been happy with the way the fourth line, which also includes Crombeen and P.C. Labrie, have utilized the time they do have on the ice.
Considered one of the leaders in the physical movement, Thompson believes he must take the “A” he dons on his chest and relay the message to the rest. It is one of the reasons he was selected as an alternate captain by Cooper too.
“The biggest thing I must do is just lead by example,” Thompson said. Do the little things out there that drive the team.”
“You want the rest of the team to learn,” Cooper said. “It doesn’t matter what the score is, we’re still going to fight this thing out. I love that about those guys.”
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