I'm not sure what coach Dave Tippett said to the Phoenix Coyotes before Game 2 Sunday night, but whatever magnificent words of inspiration he offered sure did the trick. Dominant from start to finish, the Coyotes were full value for a surprising 5-3 victory over the Nashville Predators.
This wasn't a matter of simply making a few adjustments. The Coyotes looked like a different team than the one that played possum for the latter half of Game 1. They dropped the rope-a-dope routine and went with an aggressive assault that penned the Preds in their own zone for long stretches and created more chances to win big than an office lottery pool.
Tippett called it "the best 60 minutes we've played in these playoffs."
It says here it was a relentless effort from a group that finally played like it believed it belonged.
The direct approach that Tippett summoned from them isn't easy. A team has to be committed to outworking its opponent in all three zones and then execute on the opportunities it creates. That's exactly what the yes-we-can Coyotes did.
"We got people to the net, more shots from the point," said Phoenix captain Shane Doan, who closed the scoring at 3:36 of the third using that exact formula. He drove to the net on a face-off win, putting himself in perfect position to tip home a blueline blast from defenseman Derek Morris past a beleaguered Pekka Rinne.
The significance of that goal, coming less than three minutes after Ryan Suter's power play goal drew the Predators to within one, can't be overstated. Phoenix is a team that has made a bad habit of coughing up third-period leads in these playoffs. Adding an insurance marker so quickly released the pressure. There would be no late letdown. They wouldn't need another OT.
"We didn't just sit back and wait," Doan said. "We stayed on the puck a little bit more and caused problems for them. We've had the lead in the third period in a few games, and we haven't played exactly the way we wanted to. Tonight was little closer to [what we want to do]."
This was also the first time that the Coyotes didn't require a superlative effort from goaltender Mike Smith to bail them out. Smith may have earned First Star honors at the rink, but his 30 saves were barely a sidebar to the story. This was, as Tippett said, about a lineup with no weak links.
The Prime Line, perhaps goaded by Sen. John McCain's tweet exhorting them to step up, came through with goals by Martin Hanzal and Radim Vrbata in the second period. (Vrbata's will go down as one of the strangest in recent memory. Keith Yandle -- brilliant tonight after being all but invisible in the series opener -- blasted a shot wide of Rinne that bounced high off the end boards. Nashville's David Legwand caught the puck, but instead of tossing it back in the corner, he chucked it directly into the slot, where a stunned Vrbata took advantage of this Steve Lyons-esque mental lapse.)
Doan and Antoine Vermette chipped in for the second line. Taylor Pyatt spoke up for the third.
And the common theme to these success stories? Go to the net and good things happen. Especially when the defense just waves as you go by.
There's no way to sugar coat this from Nashville's perspective. This was an uncharacteristically bad performance by a team that prides itself on a defense-first philosophy. Sure, the Predators had three or four defenders around the net on four of the five goals, but no one was looking in the direction of the player who eventually blasted them home. Preds blueliner Roman Josi looked every bit like a kid with fewer than 60 games on his NHL resume. So did Kevin Klein, who could have been remembered for the brilliant Ovechkinian spin-o-rama he pulled off to set up Andre Kostitsyn's tying goal late in the first. Instead they will be lambasted for failing to tie up Hanzal and Vrbata on their gimme putts.
Still, those two guys will get off easy compared to the
Rough...and right on the money.
But for all the hype, there were still plenty of folks who wondered if Radulov could ratchet up his game to match the intensity of the postseason. Before this week, no one had asked that question about Rinne.
Before Game 2, the talk was of how brilliantly Rinne rebounds from games in which he allows four or more goals; how he had a 6-0-2 mark, with two shutouts, in the wake of his last nine such disasters.
So, of course, Rinne coughs up five in Game 2.
This series is unfolding in a way that absolutely no one predicted.
Rinne hasn't been himself yet in this series. He just looks...off. Tonight, he fought the puck down low. His acrobatics seemed powered by desperation rather than athleticism. His rebounds found the sticks of Coyotes more often than Predators.
You have to think he'll be better -- the whole team will be better -- when the series resumes at Bridgestone Arena in Nashville on Wednesday. But it won't require minor adjustments, like the one they made to improve their face-off percentage in Game 2. It will require a reboot, a return to the style that made the Predators a success.
Maybe they can find a Tippett to say a few inspirational words.