The votes are already in and the nominations are on their way next week, but if anyone needed more confirmation as to why Dave Tippett will be named the NHL's coach of the year this June, they got it last night.
Up against odds as long as they've faced all season, Tippett's Phoenix Coyotes pulled off a masterful feat of defensive, opportunistic hockey against the Detroit Red Wings, stifling their stars and getting key goals from players deep on the roster in a 4-2 win that gives Phoenix a 2-1 series lead.
The victory was all the more impressive because it came with captain Shane Doan on the sidelines, as he left the game with a suspected shoulder injury early in the second period after a hard collision into the boards.
Tippett said the way his team played without Doan was indicative of how it's won all season as a group that is more than the sum of its parts.
"We have a lot of guys who are itching for some extra minutes and we had some guys jump in and play really well," Tippett said. "You lose one guy, it's an opportunity for another guy."
At the front of the line in terms of stepping up were two members of the Coyotes' Czech line, wingers Petr Prucha and Radim Vrbata, who struck twice in a span of 3 minutes 20 seconds in the third period to give Phoenix leads of 3-1 and 4-2.
Both had played sparingly in the series' first two games in Phoenix but drew big minutes in this one and finished with a goal and an assist apiece.
Making their goals all the more surprising, both came with Detroit captain Nicklas Lidstrom on the ice and looking vulnerable. Prucha, in particular, victimized the six-time Norris Trophy winner on a highlight-reel play, as he banked a drop pass off the boards to Vrbata and then collected the give-and-go return feed and deked out Wings netminder Jimmy Howard.
The game as a whole wasn't vintage Red Wings hockey - and evidence that Detroit's 16-3-2 run after the Olympics doesn't appear to have carried over to the postseason.
"It's interesting how the perception from [the media]is we're supposed to just crush them," Wings coach Mike Babcock said. "They're a good team, too."
The Coyotes' loose attitude after the game spoke volumes about the confidence Tippett has helped instill in his team this season, as despite coming off what was hardly his best game of the season, netminder Ilya Bryzgalov was cracking wise with reporters.
"You want some pizza?" he said, pointing to the leftovers on a dressing room table. "Go ahead."
The swagger that comes with being able to beat the Red Wings - a team that was 20-4 at home the past two postseasons entering the game - is also progressing.
"They're a great team, but we think we're a good team, too," Vrbata said, before pausing and correcting himself. "Or a great team."
This was the first playoff contest at Joe Louis Arena since Detroit lost Game 7 of the Stanley Cup final to the Pittsburgh Penguins last June, but the raucous crowd was quieted early when Coyotes defenceman Sami Lepisto opened the scoring 29 seconds in - breaking a long-standing franchise record set by Winnipeg Jets defenceman Randy Carlyle for fastest postseason goal.
Wings centre Valtteri Filppula replied midway through the first on the power play with his third of the series to tie the game 1-1. With time ticking down in the second period, however, Phoenix forward Wojtek Wolski picked up a juicy rebound off Howard's pad and gave his team a lead it held the rest of the way.
Johan Franzen scored the Wings' other goal, part of a short-lived third-period rally that ended when Vrbata scored less than two minutes later to re-establish a two-goal lead.
Doan's return for Game 4 tomorrow, meanwhile, remains in doubt, as Tippett said after the game he was still being looked at by doctors.
Even if he's unable to play, the Coyotes hardly seem daunted.
"From where we've come from, a couple injuries are not going to deter us," Tippett said, referencing the team's off-ice issues this season. "Shane is a great player, he's our leader, but we recognized we had a game to play."
"We believe in ourselves," Bryzgalov said. "I not worry about opinion from outside."