With Smith as their star, Coyotes make it a night to remember
On what may go down as one of the finest days in the history of the Phoenix Coyotes, captain Shane Doan's first thoughts were for the team's long-suffering supporters.
"It's been hard being a Coyotes fan for a few years, so it's nice to win this one at home," Doan told NBC after Phoenix eliminated Nashville with a 2-1 Game 5 victory on Monday night. "I had friends and family in the stands, so it's nice to win this for all of them."
The win was only part of a memorable night that also included news that a deal to keep the team in Glendale might be on the horizon.
There was no closure to that solution -- more on that in a moment -- but the short term couldn't look any brighter. The Coyotes are going to the Western Conference finals for the first time in franchise history.
"We bent, but we didn't break," coach Dave Tippett said. "The guys gave it all they had tonight."
It was a franticly paced bout that recalled the Coyotes' Game 6 elimination of the Blackhawks in the first round. There was terrific puck pressure from both sides to start, but Nashville slowly began dominating the play, controlling the Phoenix zone and generating better chances than at any point in Game 4. Mike Fisher was able to drive down low for a tough backhand chance. Ryan Suter, playing what might have been his last game for the Predators, almost tallied with an off-balance wrister from the point.
But, as was the case throughout the series, goaltender Mike Smith had the answer.
Smith was at his best during a ridiculous series of circumstances on a second-period Nashville power play. Andrei Kostitsyn found himself alone at the end of a 3-on-2 break, but Smith stopped his in-tight wrister. The rebound went to an open Alexander Radulov ... and bounced directly over his stick and back to Kostitsyn who was denied by a sliding blocker save.
Just one sequence, but to coach Barry Trotz, it symbolized Nashville's failings in the series. "We just didn't bury our chances," he said, his team foiled by Smith on 32 of its 33 shots. "We had enough of them. Their defense, their forwards blocked a lot, but we still had plenty of chances. We just couldn't finish."
Trotz pulled out all the stops to spark his offense, constantly fussing with his lines and activating blueliners to create four-man scrums down low. It didn't matter. With Smith being Smith, their fate was sealed.
Phoenix generated just 17 shots on the night, but it was enough. Derek Morris opened the scoring with his first goal of the postseason 3:54 into the second period. Shane Doan had just been sprung on a breakaway, but his bid hit the post and skittered wide. Impressively, he outbattled Shea Weber for the puck (not dissimilar from his critical play in Game 4) and found Morris open at the point. His slapper appeared to deflect off Fisher's stick and past Pekka Rinne.
Martin Hanzal didn't have his best game of the series, but he tallied the winner 12 minutes later. It was a simple wrister from the top of the circle that beat Rinne -- crushingly, on the heels of a frenetic assault that had just been repelled by Smith at the other end. When that one went in, it was pretty clear how this was going to end.
Colin Wilson halved the margin with 5:59 left in the third on a slick redirect of a David Legwand pass, leading to a fire-drill conclusion that almost matched the intensity of the Rangers-Capitals contest earlier in the evening. But the sustained possession in the Phoenix zone and several close chances were either blocked by defenders or denied by Smith.
With the clock winding down, Smith launched a long bomb that missed the empty Nashville net by the narrowest of margins. A goal there would have brought the roof down, but instead it went for an icing and returned the face-off to his right with 2.1 seconds left. An exciting play, but it's a good bet he'll be asked to pull that move from his repertoire in future one-goal games.
It's a small criticism of a player and a team, really, that fully deserve this journey into uncharted territory. They won't be favored against the Los Angeles Kings, but you can't dismiss their chances.
Look at how they play when they win. You don't notice anybody (other than Smith) standing out. And that's a good thing. The Coyotes win because they are a cohesive, single-purpose unit.
"We don't have the superstars," Smith said. "We have a bunch of guys who chip in every night. Different guys every night and that's what you need this time of year."
That approach should make for a fascinating conference final.
It's worth taking a moment here to pay respects to the Predators and how they reacted to adversity -- especially when compared to Philadelphia's Game 4 meltdown Sunday night. As frustrating as it had to be, they never showed the strain. Nashville battled with composure and dignity over the last two games.
Rinne was the hard-luck loser, allowing just three goals over his final nine periods, but somehow dropping two of those games.
Weber was greenlit from the start to key the offense, and he did everything but score, hitting the post on a first-period power play and landing a game-high seven shots -- nearly half as many as the entire Coyotes roster landed on Rinne. His partner Suter was a rock, as always.
And then there were the Booze Brothers. Radulov said before the game that he'd make a difference. He must have been referring to the press box seating chart. Given 19:26 to create something -- including some double-shift opportunities late -- he delivered nothing more than a pair of shots and a few odd chances. Unfortunately, Nashville had plenty of those. What they needed were goals, and neither Radulov nor Kostitsyn finished.
It's small comfort, but it appears they took Trotz off the hook for leaving them on the bench in Game 4.
Now, back to that news conference.
NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman tipped off the evening by introducing former San Jose Sharks CEO Greg Jamison as the head of a group tentatively slated to purchase the franchise.
"We are going to proceed with he and his group to reach a formal purchase and sale of the Coyotes," Bettman announced. A process, he added, that he hoped would be resolved in a matter of weeks, not months.
Clearly, it wasn't everything Coyotes fans had hoped for ... or, perhaps, had been led to expect. Once Bettman opened by calling the conference "overhyped," it was apparent that while the "tentative understanding" with the Jamison group put the Coyotes in a better spot than yesterday, there's still a ways to go before there are actual, signed agreements in place between the league, the city of Glendale and the prospective owners.
And given how this process has dragged out over more than three years, with three previous tentative agreements submarined either by funding issues or lease deals with the city or the threat of legal battles, it's fair to retain a healthy dose of skepticism, especially until the rest of Jamison's group is unveiled and their financial wherewithal is fully vetted.