It's small picture time for the Phoenix Coyotes.
They don't have to complete an historic comeback in tonight's Game 5 clash at Jobing.com Arena. They just have to win one game.
That approach served them well in Los Angeles as they stared down a daunting three-game deficit on Sunday and staved off elimination with their best effort of the series. On the surface, they just need more of the same tonight: another strong (if not outright larcenous) performance from goaltender Mike Smith, a consistently applied forecheck that leads to higher quality chances against Jonathan Quick, and a commitment to sacrifice in the defensive zone.
In the end, though, what will likely separate Game 6 and summer vacation for the Coyotes is a first line that actually delivers like one.
It's no surprise that Phoenix finds itself in this deep a hole when you consider that it has yet to get any real contribution from Ray Whitney, Martin Hanzal and Radim Vrbata. Hobbled by injuries, sidelined by suspension or minimized by the pervasive physicality of the Kings, the unit has been nothing but a rumor in the series, combining for a grand total of one assist --Whitney's board-crashing steal that set up Shane Doan's winner in Game 4.
Sure, it's tough to score at this time of year, but that kind of paltry production is just brutal. Under ideal circumstances, this trio wouldn't be the team's go-to guys. Vrbata, who led the Coyotes with 35 goals during the regular season, has the hands and creativity to be a decent top-line finisher. Hanzal would be better cast as a third-liner, a banger with a bit of offensive snarl. At 40, Whitney should be playing the limited minutes of the calming elder statesman who chips in with the occasional big goal, much like Mark Recchi did last year with the Boston Bruins. But things are as they are, and so the onus falls squarely on the first line. If Phoenix fails, these guys will deserve the brunt of the blame. If the Coyotes are to climb back toward history, they have to chart the path.
Coach Dave Tippett has been critical of their efforts, but he saw a glimmer of hope in Game 4. "I thought they were better last game, probably the best game they played in the series," he told reporters on Monday. "Ray Whitney was around some chances. Vrbata...he's an opportunistic player. When he's contributing, he capitalizes on [his chances]. He had a couple of opportunities right in the slot [Sunday], one that he bobbled, another one he missed the net. The next step is to make those chances count.
"It's a line that's been strong for us during the season. Anything they could do to chip in would be greatly appreciated."
The Coyotes can look back at this series and fairly say that, after a rotten start, they've come closer to capturing their ideal effort with each passing game. Part of that is a better execution of their defensive scheme, but equally important is generating a reliable transition game that creates the kind of chances that Vrbata, Hanzal and Whitney can cash in on.
Oliver Ekman-Larsson was more effective in that role on Sunday. The return of Adrian Aucoin also helped. He remains a game-time decision for tonight, but could play a huge part. A strong effort on the back end and an opportunistic offense will get the Coyotes to Game 6.
The Kings, of course, have other ideas.
They've been in this spot before, having blown a chance to close out the Daniel Sedin-fortified Canucks in Game 4 of their first round clash. Three nights later, they maintained their composure and battled back from a 1-0 third period deficit to finish the series with a 2-1 win on Jarret Stoll's overtime clincher. Even without the benefit of an extra night off, the Kings have had plenty of time to get their heads right after Sunday's disappointing performance.
"We've been playing pretty good hockey," captain Dustin Brown told reporters on Monday. "We're a confident group. I think we all believe we can be better in Game 5."
They'll have to be. The Kings that suited up for Game 4 were an unimposing lot. If not complacent, they were certainly a little self-satisfied. After an early push that saw them get pucks on the net and bodies dashing in front of Smith, the first three lines stopped battling to get into the greasy areas.
No doubt the Kings have more natural talent up front than the Coyotes, but not so much that they can create the kind of chances they'll need against Smith with skill alone.
Cute just won't cut it.
"We had some traffic, but probably not enough," Brown admitted. "It's the forwards' job to get there, and I also thought that on the few chances we had and the shots we took, when you're at the blue line you've got have someone at least around the net. So it's a collective, five-man group type of thing. You have to get guys there, and when guys are there, we need to get [the puck down] there."
They also need to revive the forecheck that was all but absent from Game 4. Without it, they left the Coyotes too much time to make the right plays, and failed to generate the turnovers that led to so many of their chances in the first three games. It made them look a lot like the team that stumbled around for much of the season before squeaking into the playoffs on the final weekend. And that's a team that's a little too easy to beat.
Sure, Game 4 might have just been an aberration. Nothing to worry about. After all, the Kings come to Glendale having not yet lost on the road in these playoffs. Only twice have they allowed an opponent to score consecutive goals. Maybe a little smack in the mouth was exactly what they needed to regain the determination that defined their now-scuttled eight-game winning streak.
They'll have to hope so. Another effort like that and the Kings will be bringing company with them on their return trip to L.A.