Saturday April 17th, 2010

GLENDALE, Ariz. -- The distance from Tombstone to Phoenix is 167 miles, which might be a long way to go for a shootout what with all the traffic. Glendale, a suburb of the Arizona metropolis, is much closer and swank Arena clearly is a more comfortable venue than a dusty alley to witness all kinds of flying projectiles.

The score: Detroit 7, Phoenix 4. In the annals of Coyotes playoff hockey -- we know, this no as voluminous as War and Peace -- this game will be remembered as the Shootout at the "I'm OK, You're OK" Corral.

The Red Wings certainly are OK, having won this marvelous and no doubt maddening game -- for the Coyotes coaches, anyway -- to even the first-round series after two games. The Red Wings reminded the hockey world of their bona fides, utilizing their superior skill and showing a considerable will. Henrik Zetterberg had three goals -- the empty-netter concluded a hat trick -- and Valtteri Filppula had another two in this brazen display of firewagon hockey that had some Coyotes heads spinning Friday more than Linda Blair in The Exorcist. "Wide open, a lot of fun," said rookie Detroit goalie Jimmy Howard, who won his first playoff game in an unconventional manner. "We have some skilled guys, but they also have some guys who can skate and just go. My guess is you'll see a lot more of a defensive style (in Game 3) Sunday."

But the Coyotes, well, they sort of were OK, too. They got caught up in the second-period merriment, but then showed -- for a time, at least -- they could be more than a buttoned-down, cautious team that was eternally obliged to eke out one-goal victories. Now, they certainly don't want to keep getting into shootouts with a team that has way more bullets; but in defeat, they showed a side that had largely kept hidden.

"We opened up a lot," said Phoenix center Matthew Lombardi, one of the NHL's premier skaters, "but that's because we kept making so many mistakes. That's not how we usually do things around here. We know that our success has mostly come in those 2-1 or 3-2 games. Having that much open ice, guys flying up and down, that might be great to watch, but that's not how we got here. It was sort of fun while it lasted, but you don't want to try that too much against them. Look at their roster. They have world-class guys who can make you pay if you keep making mistakes."

"We're not going to win many hockey games doing that," coach Dave Tippett said. "...That's certainly not our M.O. for the season." Anyway, once Tippett hides the lampshades the fun and foolish Coyotes wore for the last 40 minutes, this series could be an honest-to-goodness thing. Sure, the Coyotes have been a cute bedtime story, the little engine that could, if, say, the railroad line were in receivership and about to be nationalized. But the split at home only reinforced that Phoenix, when it sticks to the script, is capable of playing -- and beating -- a veteran team that's been to the past two finals. The Red Wings fell into a 1-0 first-period hole, the result of Coyotes persistence and puck support mingled with some of their own sloth. Petr Prucha carried the puck along the right wing, cut off at the half board by defenseman Brad Stuart. But Radim Vrbata jumped in and grabbed the puck and seconds later Martin Hanzal was circling the net and bouncing a shot off Howard's shoulder. This time Keith Yandle, the dynamic blueliner who is on the cusp of joining the group of elite young attacking defenseman, broke in unmarked from the blue line -- Todd Bertuzzi did not exactly overextend himself backchecking on the play -- and buried a rebound.

"He's such a mobile defenseman," Coyotes veteran defenseman Ed Jovanovski said of Yandle. "He's got quick feet, and he's able to get into holes."

And in the second period, there were nothing but holes. In the most entertaining period of these still young playoffs, the party hats and noisemakers were broken out. Staring with Zetterberg's power play goal at 6:27 and ending with Filppula's nifty finish at 10:25, the teams scored five times in two ticks under four minutes, alternating goals. They were like two schoolyard welterweights at recess who simply forgot about self-preservation and took turns whaling away at each other, inflicting a fair amount of punishment.

From a Phoenix perspective, the quick answers to the first two Detroit goals were most impressive. When Howard and defenseman Niklas Kronwall ran into communication problems and left a puck free for a second a few feet from the crease, Wojtek Wolski pounced to give the Coyotes a lead just 38 seconds after they had lost one. And following Pavel Datsyuk's goal -- the scoreboard had just thoughtfully mentioned that he hadn't scored in 15 playoff games -- Lombardi used his otherworldly speed to take a chip pass from Shane Doan, outrace Drew Miller and beat Howard with a backhand on the modified breakaway. Only after Filppula used his speed to beat Zbynek Michalek and then goalie Ilya Bryzgalov with a backhander -- Jovanovski had taken himself out of the play to hit Bertuzzi in the neutral zone -- did the game lose its wonderful, frenetic quality. But Phoenix had misplaced the formula. Three late goals and it was over, even if the series is only getting revved up. The only epitaph that likely will be written is: Firewagon hockey, RIP.

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