It was hard not to note the contrast.
Here you had the Phoenix Coyotes, the NHL's leading basket case, a team dead last in payroll and with some of the worst attendance marks this season that the league has seen in quite some time.
At the other end of the rink, your hosts, the team that - even in a salary cap era - can spend the most and sell its tickets for what it pleases, filling its building all season, every season, recession be damned.
And yet, on the ice, the plucky club from the desert came out on top.
After fielding questions all day regarding the franchise's off-ice turmoil, the Coyotes showed last night just why they've put together a 20-12-2 record amid the chaos, outhustling the Toronto Maple Leafs in a neat and tidy 6-3 win.
Along the way, they got goals from several unlikely sources, the result of winning key puck battles in the offensive zone and an off night for Leafs netminder Vesa Toskala.
The game also served as a reminder that, for as good as the Leafs have been the past four weeks (9-3-2 leading into the loss), the ability to beat the type of tight-checking Western Conference team they've struggled against in recent years may yet still elude them.
"We couldn't stop the bleeding in the second period, and we allowed a couple really crappy goals," Leafs head coach Ron Wilson said. "We're a little run down and tired, we've been really busy with the schedule we've had and it kind of showed in the first 30 minutes or so in the game.
"We weren't as sharp as we needed to be against a team that plays a determined game."
Petr Prucha was the unlikely hero for the visitors, netting the game's first two goals and giving his team a lead 51 seconds into the middle frame it would not relinquish. Fellow depth contributors Vernon Fiddler and Paul Bissonnette checked in with rare goals before Scottie Upshall, second in team scoring with only 10, salted things away at 5-1 with a few minutes left in a wild, six-goal second period.
At least two Coyotes goals came with an odour, a sign perhaps Toronto isn't quite out of the woods with Toskala in net.
Jamal Mayers, Phil Kessel and Alexei Ponikarovsky had the goals for Toronto, but Coyotes netminder Ilya Bryzgalov - an early Vézina Trophy candidate - snuffed out any hopes in the third with 13 saves.
"If we want to win our games, everybody has to bring their 'A' game," Toskala said. "I don't think average is good enough for us to win. When we're taking our foot off the gas, even a little bit, that's not enough."
"We're not going to make any excuses in here - that wasn't the way we've been playing the last month," Mayers said. "We just want to forget about this one."
As they were the first half of last season, the Coyotes have been one of the feel-good stories of 2009-10, winning far more than they've lost and hanging in the playoff race in the West. But what's incredible this time around is that Phoenix, led by new coach Dave Tippett, has so effectively tuned out the distractions that came with the off-season bankruptcy proceedings and simply started outworking the opposition, night in and night out.
Off the ice, the clouds may soon lift - at least momentarily - for the Coyotes, with a sale and some optimism to follow. On it, this is a better team than they've had in the desert for years, one led by an early coach of the year candidate and backstopped by one of the top netminders in the league.
What they now need more than anything is to woo back their fans and at least a few thousand more, something their captain says will come with the wins.
"When we get everything settled and we prove we're actually a team that's competitive and can win, we'll see how they do," said Shane Doan, who lived through one relocation (from Winnipeg 13 years ago), and isn't keen to see another. "That's when I think the judgment will be."
That's coming. And, so far anyway, the players are doing their part.
NOTES Phoenix Coyotes captain Shane Doan said his team was well-aware of where most pundits predicted it to finish this season. "I think everyone picked us to finish last," he said. "As a group, we really didn't see that. We thought we could win, we really did. … We think we can win more than we have so far and can be better yet." … Phoenix netminder Ilya Bryzgalov brought a little levity to the game-day skate, when he asked the gathered media if they knew the price of marble per square foot in Canada. After receiving some blank looks, he explained he was building a new house in Moscow. … A surprise healthy scratch for the Coyotes was centre Peter Mueller, the franchise's first-round pick from 2006, who has struggled this season with just one goal and six points in 28 games. … Toronto Maple Leafs defenceman Luke Schenn, a 2008 first-rounder, sat out his third game in a row as a healthy scratch. ... With the loss, the Leafs' record against the Western Conference fell to 11-21-6 in the past three seasons.
NEXT GAME Friday, at Buffalo Sabres, 7:30 p.m. (EST)
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