Friday, May 4, 2012
Coyotes about to lose anonymity
By Pierre LeBrun ESPN.com
NASHVILLE -- At some point, the hockey world will want to stand up and recognize a little ownerless team in the desert up to some mighty impressive things this spring.
The Phoenix Coyotes are one win away from the Western Conference finals, a feat never accomplished by the franchise on either side of the border and a script about as improbable as one could have manufactured eight months ago.
It is perhaps as improbable as Mike Smith making the Coyotes forget Ilya Bryzgalov ever existed.
Operated by the NHL for the past three years, the Coyotes have a permanent cloud of instability hovering over them because of the uncertainty of their future. As a result, Phoenix coach Dave Tippett and his men do their thing very much under the radar of the national spotlight. And they'll tell you they're just fine with that.
That's likely about to change. One more win and they're no longer going to be playing in near obscurity.
"Hope not," smiled Smith after his 25-save shutout led the Coyotes to a 1-0 Game 4 victory at Bridgestone Arena. "Let's just keep flying under the radar. It's a nice way to go about it. We just have to stick with what we're doing and not get too far ahead of ourselves."
The script is the same here in the second round as it was during a first-round dispatching of the Chicago Blackhawks: Jump out to a series lead and push back just when it looks as though the opposing team is seizing series momentum.
When the Nashville Predators won Game 3 on Wednesday night, it gave the appearance of a series-changing night, the favored team figuring out its game. Here come the Preds was the prevailing thought.
But just like the Coyotes responded when the Blackhawks appeared to be turning the tables on them, Phoenix rose up Friday night with a clinical road performance. And by clinical, I mean nearly perfect.
"As much as it's from everyone in the room, it's really Smithy being unbelievable in that next game when we need it," said the game's only goal scorer, Coyotes captain Shane Doan. "Not just in the playoffs, in every situation where people counted us out during the year and said, 'OK, this is where they're going to fade.' All of sudden he would go on a run that would be unbelievable, win five in a row to get us into the playoffs and get us home-ice advantage. That's what he's done all year. It's a team game, but we also recognize how good he's been."
Smith stood tall again Friday night, as he has all year long, the Coyotes limited Nashville's chances, hung on to the lead after Doan's first-period goal and grinded out a win by the thinnest of margins.
"I think there is a real resiliency in our group," said Tippett. "The thing we always go back to is that we know how we need to play if we're going to be successful. But the biggest thing is that we know everyone has to contribute. That's the thing about our team tonight: Everybody in there did their job. When you do that, you can become a good team. Our team doesn't get flustered much. Adversity is just part of who we are. We have a great leadership that keeps everyone on the straight and narrow. We just go out there and plug along and find a way to win. That's what we've done this playoffs."
Nashville, meanwhile, is having its own medicine force-fed to it. Predators hockey is about frustrating the opposition, waiting for chances and winning tight, defensive games.
They probably should have won Game 1, and they played well enough to win Friday night. But in both cases, they didn't. And now they know what it feels like to be Detroit and lose to an opportunistic team.
Needless to say, not dressing Alexander Radulov for a second-straight game and getting shut out at home will certainly fuel the arm-chair quarterbacks.
"I don't think I have to defend it," Trotz said of his decision to not dress Radulov and Andrei Kostitsyn for a second straight game. "The guys had chances, we created chances. ... You could say the 'What's ifs?' Maybe they could have made a difference. We'll never know that. The guys that played, played well and created lots of chances. We just have to bury one of them."
Having said that, I'd be shock if at least Radulov didn't dress Monday night in Phoenix.
"There's some guys I don't think played particularly well today," said Trotz. "They can play a little bit better. Yeah, there will be some changes. There will be."
If for no other reason, the Preds need Radulov's creativity back on their ailing power play. Make it two straight games without a sniff on the power play and overall just 5-for-37 for the playoffs.
"We've tried quite a few tricks already," said Trotz. "You're pre-scouted pretty well. It's that cat-and-mouse game. It was difficult to make plays out there, I thought the building was little bit warm and the pucks were bouncing around. I don't think it helps both power plays. ... But yeah, we've got to get production from our power play. If we're not scoring, the power play's got to come up and get us a goal."
And so here are the Predators, the team most people picked to win this series, needing to win three straight games to get it done. It's a daunting task against a mirror image of their team.
"I know at 3-0 the numbers don't look good," said Trotz. "But at 3-1, a number of teams have come back. The numbers are much better than 3-0. Our focus has to be on winning a hockey game. We won't look past that."