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Martin Fennelly Columns

Fennelly: Lightning follow Cooper's lead into playoffs

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Published:   |   Updated: April 15, 2014 at 06:44 AM

TAMPA — We can talk about Lightning coach Jon Cooper's sensational first full NHL season. Or his intelligence, humor and breezy confidence. Or his friendly, yet firm touch with his players. Or his unflappable approach to an incredibly flappable season, or how he is allergic to taking much credit for this franchise's turnaround.

But the Bolts are back in the playoffs.

Cooper's vision is one reason why.

OK, enough about his eyes.

How about those jaws?

It's official: Jon Cooper can chew gum and coach a team to the Stanley Cup playoffs at the same time.

During games, he's a master of the casual chew, the bemused chew, the angry chew.

Anybody need sheet metal cut in half?

“Instead of pacing around the bench or doing a lot of things inside me, I take something out by chewing gum,” Cooper said.

We have to ask ...

“Double Bubble,” Cooper said.

One piece per game.

“Right before puck drop,” Cooper said. “I've been doing it for more years than I remember. It's just one piece. The jaw has been trained. If you get a flawed piece, it's so hard to get through a whole game.”

Someone even has a Twitter account called @Jon Coopers Gum .

Everybody: Do the Chew!

I can make a real case for this former lawyer as NHL coach of the year.

Rookie coach Patrick Roy will surely win the award, for Colorado's amazing climb from 29th in the league last season. But the Lightning team that Cooper took over late last season finished 28th in the league. The Lightning team he has coached this season has been through the grinder, from Vinny Lecavalier's departure to Steven Stamkos' injury to the Marty St. Louis trade to the now injured Ben Bishop. Double Trouble has been looking to beat Double Bubble.

The Bolts have never been broken.

Neither has their coach.

“It's hard to explain, because you think all the things that have gone into this past year, it feels like it's been six,” Cooper said. “What has gone on, from the marquee players who were here who are no longer here, new guys who have come up, the landscape of the organization has completely changed. ... And it's all turned over in one year.”

Most of the Lightning rookies who've excelled this season were trained by Cooper in the American Hockey League and seasoned during extended postseasons. They came here thinking they belonged, just like their coach thought he belonged, having won a championship at every step up the ladder to the NHL. They've followed his lead. They aren't alone.

“He's been great,” Lightning captain Stamkos said. “He's known as a players' coach, and it's true. I think he's the coach who, for me, is the most approachable, to just go in the room and chat, or more serious ones. His door is always open. He holds us accountable, but he's given guys a chance to bounce back. He knows where that line is.”

“I just think he has a way of delivering the firm message in a way that doesn't beat people up too badly,” Lightning GM Steve Yzerman said. “He's always looking for solutions. He's a leader, a strong leader, a positive guy, a problem solver. It's the way he operates, the way his teams play, how they practice, his organizational skills. He just continues to get better and better.”

There has been a calm to this Lightning club, no matter what has popped up, and a lot has. It speaks to resiliency and leadership in the dressing room. It speaks to coaching, too, though Cooper dismisses any notion that he's the Magic Chef.

“You just make sure that we're not sitting here saying because we lost one player, two players, oh, my God, this is it, the season's over,” he said. “Does this team have a little bit of my personality, some traits of my personality? I hope eventually you want to have a confident group, a team that carries a little swag. I think we're slowly getting there. We're not quite there, but maybe I'm not quite there as a coach.”

There's nothing like on-the-job training.

Or Double Bubble.

“And the Skittles in my pocket that I pop in,” Cooper said.

It's been a treat watching this coach.

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