Tampa Bay Lightning coach Jon Cooper has worked with Jack Eichel at the World Cup of Hockey and at last month's All-Star Game in Tampa's Amalie Arena, so he has firsthand knowledge of the talent level of the injured Sabres star.
But don't think he's celebrating the fact his team won't have to deal with Eichel tonight or in the Feb. 28 game in Tampa. Eichel will miss his second game of the season tonight with a high ankle sprain suffered Saturday in Boston.
"Even as the opponent tonight, I wish everybody could be healthy," Cooper said in KeyBank Center. "Ultimately, it's a fan's game and fans want to see players of Eichel's stature. ... I really enjoy watching him and being around him."
Eichel and Toronto's Auston Matthews put together one of the signature moments of the All-Star Game with their animated "good goal" points to emphasize Eichel's goal after an offside challenge had wiped out their team's tally a minute earlier. The Lightning lost in Toronto, 4-3, Monday night as Matthews had three assists and William Nylander had two goals.
"Some of the antics Eichel and Matthews had together at the All-Star Game were great," Cooper said. "Last night we got to watch [Mitch] Marner, Nylander and Matthews. Tonight you'd get to see Sam Reinhart, Eichel and [Rasmus] Ristolainen. You look at the young guys in the league and it's too bad Eichel is going to be out here for a while."
Cooper knows all about high ankle sprains, too. Tampa Bay forward Ondrej Palat will miss his 10th straight game tonight after suffering one Jan. 20 and backup goalie Peter Budaj will miss No. 20 with a sprain suffered Dec. 29. As the Sabres found out two years ago with Robin Lehner, the injury is obviously much more difficult for goaltenders to overcome.
"I hate to say this but you're almost wishing there was a break in there instead of a sprain," Cooper said. "It's amazing to say that but they're way worse. You just don't know how you are when you come back. Players who get them ... it's frustrating. Eventually he'll walk normally and feel right but when you're pushing off, it's way different. I feel for guys who get those."
As for Cooper's team, the Lightning are 38-15-3 and maintain a three-point lead over Boston and Vegas in the race for first overall in the NHL and the Presidents' Trophy. Cooper, who is coaching his 400th NHL game tonight, doesn't give hints but it's a good bet that backup goaltender Louis Domingue gets the call in place of league victory leader and Vezina Trophy favorite Andrei Vasilevskiy.
Tampa Bay is 19-10-2 on the road and leads the league in road wins, points (40) and goals (107). The Bolts have six players with at least 40 points, led by NHL scoring leader Nikita Kucherov's 71. Cooper said he'll be watching his team closely playing back-to-back in the wake of the breakneck pace of the game in Toronto.
"You have to try to get the lead because you don't want to be chasing a game for the second night in a row like we were last night," said Cooper, whose team overcame a 3-0 deficit before losing on James van Riemsdyk's third-period goal. "The other thing is you've got to expect the other team knows what's going on and they're going to try to come out hard, trying to take the life out of you early. You have to manage that first 5-10 minutes."