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Tampa Bay coach Jon Cooper issued a rebuttal to Toronto coach Sheldon Keefe’s claim that the Lightning were “manipulating the officials” in Game 3 of the teams’ first-round Eastern Conference playoff series on Saturday.

Keefe told reporters after the Maple Leafs’ 4-3 win in overtime that a third-period fight between star players Steven Stamkos and Auston Matthews was, “a classic example of a veteran championship team like Tampa Bay manipulating the officials and taking advantage of a situation.”

Stamkos got into it with Matthews following a hit by Leafs’ defenseman Morgan Rielly on Lightning forward Brayden Point that briefly knocked Point out of the game — and caused several other skirmishes. Nikita Kucherov and Ryan O’Reilly were also given five-minute penalties for fighting before the dust finally settled and play resumed.

Cooper spoke with the media via Zoom on Sunday and unpacked Keefe’s criticism.

“Manipulating the referees? Alright, I’m not sure what that means,” Cooper said. “When that hit [on Point] happened, I think everyone in the building, including us, thought we were going on the power play. Our two best power play players [Stamkos and Kucherov], I don’t think they would ever sit there and take themselves off a power play unless they thought something happened.”

Ultimately, Cooper added, the Lightning didn’t help themselves by getting physical, which made Keefe’s comments all the more confusing.

“Auston Matthews doesn’t kill penalties,” said Cooper. “That actually worked against us, to be honest. Now we ended up being shorthanded after that [fight], but I don’t think anybody thought that was going to happen at the time, so I don’t know. That [manipulating part] is a little different for me.”

The bigger concern for Tampa now is any residual fallout from Rielly’s hit on Point. Rielly was initially assessed a five-minute major penalty for boarding on the play, but after an official review it was determined there was no penalty. Point went to the locker room but was able to come back and finish the game.

Rielly — who scored the game-winning goal for Toronto in overtime — said after Game 3 he thought it was a “clean” hit on Point. Cooper made note on Sunday that Rielly is a “super, super human being” and not a “dirty player” but the hit clearly had a negative impact on one of the Lightning’s top skaters.

“Was the incident reckless? For sure, and it looked awful,” Cooper said. “When you see that, you’re thinking the worst. The fact [Point] came back and played? I was amazed [of that] in itself. But he went through so many different tests, and he was struggling. It looked like he was in a car accident the way he went into the wall … Hopefully he’s going to be okay to play tomorrow.”

One player who won’t be in the Lightning lineup for Game 4 is Erik Cernak. The defenseman has been sidelined since taking an elbow to the head from Leafs forward Michael Bunting in the second period of Game 1. Cooper did not rule out Cernak’s eventual return at some point in the series, which Tampa Bay now trails 2-1.

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Lightning coach Jon Cooper scoffs at ref ‘manipulation’ claim