On the morning after their most dismal performance of the Stanley Cup playoffs, the Phoenix Coyotes regrouped around captain Shane Doan, who issued a challenge the only way one of the nicest, calmest, most mild-mannered players in the NHL can.
“We know we can be better and we will be,” said Doan, who clearly thought what everybody else did too in the opener of the Western Conference final, a 4-2 Phoenix loss. His Coyotes were so thoroughly outplayed by the Los Angeles Kings that even mild-mannered coach Dave Tippett went off on their effort and execution.
Tippett is the antithesis of the New York Rangers’ volatile John Tortorella and thus understands that for maybe half-a-dozen times a year, it’s okay to call out his players as a motivational strategy. Too much of that and it just goes in one ear and out the other. Judiciously applied, the flat recitation of facts – “we weren’t close, we got beat in every facet of the game” – can work to grab their attention.
“He didn’t even have to do that,” defenceman Keith Yandle said, “because we knew as a group, we didn’t compete as hard as we wanted to. Guys know we have to play a harder 60 minutes.
“Everybody’s angry at themselves for the way we played. We knew we let Game 1 go.”
On the limited evidence of the Coyotes’ performance in the opener, you’d think their best chance to get back in the series is to hope for another curfew violation by the opposition.
Last round, Phoenix wasn’t all great in the opener against Nashville either, but because the Predators were so immersed in their own off-ice issues, they were a distracted bunch and strayed from their team identity. The Kings are showing no signs of doing that whatsoever. In all the areas in which they were superior on paper, they were better on the ice too, especially on the fore-check, where their big bodies punished the Phoenix defencemen; and around the net, where they pounded some 75 shots toward the net, 48 of which actually leaked through to goaltender Mike Smith.
Smith was under siege all night and delivered another quality outing.
“We were the ones feeling them out and they came at us with everything they had,” Smith said. “We need to be more aggressive and play more toward our capabilities and not let them come at us so hard.”
In the last series, against Nashville, Game 2 was by far the Coyotes’ best effort. Of course, it’s hard to say how much that had to do with subpar performances from Nashville’s Alexander Radulov and Andrei Kostitsyn, the curfew violators, and how much it had to do with their own performance.
Phoenix is a bit like a metronome – steady as she goes. If the Coyotes need to reach another level, it is hard to imagine where that level may come from – although Radim Vrbata and Ray Whitney, their key offensive players in the regular season – can do more to jump-start the scoring.
“We knew they only lost one game so far, but that’s got nothing to do with our team, because I know we can be better,” Coyotes centre Martin Hanzal said. “You’ve got to raise your level every single round. They did it and we didn’t. If we don’t raise our level, we’re going to go home. It’s very simple.”
Simple to say. Harder to do.
About the only thing the Coyotes have going for them is it’s hard to imagine they could be any worse than they were in the opener, and even at that, the teams were tied 2-2 at the end of 40 minutes and Phoenix was in a position to steal one. If bottoming out early proves to be a salvation, if the notion that they couldn’t be any worse than they were on opening night provides a galvanizing push, then the Coyotes can get right back in the series, with a victory in Tuesday’s second game. If not, this will be over in a hurry.