Down 2-0 in the Western Conference final to the Los Angeles Kings and playing without top-six forward Martin Hanzal, you’d have to think that the Phoenix Coyotes’ chances in this series have drifted from slight underdog to shrinking long shot.
Good. That’s exactly what Coyotes’ coach Dave Tippett wants. That’s exactly how Tippett gets the most of out his charges - by trying to seduce you into thinking it’s over; and that it should be easy from here on in. Motivationally, Tippett has this approach down pat. On Wednesday, he went to pains to remind everyone within earshot how the Coyotes are just a lunch-bucket crowd that gets more out of less than anyone else in the NHL. It’s how they managed to sneak off with victories in the first two playoff rounds and how they figure to play their hand, with Game 3 on tap at the Staples Centre tonight.
But Kings’ forward Dustin Penner was already ahead of the curve when it comes to card-playing metaphors, noting that hockey playoffs in the age of parity is “kinda like poker. A chip and a chair.”
That the Coyotes haven’t given the Kings a run for their money is primarily because their scoring - what little there is of it generally - went completely dry in the first two games. So far, they’ve had a 100-foot fluke from Derek Morris; one nicely executed play that saw Mikkel Boedker bury one behind Kings’ goaltender Jonathan Quick; and nothing else. That limited offence just isn’t going to get it done.
Back in the regular season, the Coyotes relied primarily on Ray Whitney (77 points) and Radim Vrbata (62) for scoring, the players on the team to score more than 50 points. Right now, Whitney is sixth on the team with six points in 12 games, while Vrbata is 12th, with four points in 12 games. Vrbata’s sniping is especially missed - he had 35 regular-season goals, tied for the 11th-highest total in the league, but is stuck at just two right now. In the regular season, Vrbata’s shooting percentage 15.1 per cent; in the playoffs, it has slumped to just 6.1.
“We’ll have to generate something,” said Vrbata.
“It seems like there’s not much going on in the offensive zone for us right now,” said Vrbata. “We’ll have to find something, get a good power play going, get a goal here or there. There’s not going to be much probably. If you have to win 1-0, so be it. We have just to win a game.”
Phoenix goaltender Mike Smith made a similar point post-game Tuesday following the shutout loss - that the offence needs to generate something or the Coyotes are in deep trouble. Smith is plain spoken that way and his observations didn’t appear to ruffle any feathers in the dressing room.
“He plays hard, just like everybody else,” said Tippett. “We expect them to play hard. I think it's frustration right now from our group, that we haven't played as well as we like. I think Smitty feels that frustration just like the rest of our players do. They care about what we do, they care about winning. When you don't get the results you want, there's emotion and frustration that comes into play.”
For his part, Smith suggested that “anywhere in life, honesty is the virtue. I don't say it to put anyone down. I think we all know as a team we need to be better. It's not just coming from me. I think everyone recognizes in our dressing room that we haven't played up to our capabilities. That's not one person. I'm included in that. It's that time of the season where everyone needs to elevate their game - me included. We're in the Conference Finals for a reason. We haven't played near to our capabilities so far in this series like we have in the past. We all recognize that. I think it starts with me.”
With Hanzal out, the Coyotes will turn to centre Marc-Antoine Pouliot, who played five games previously in the playoffs, three of them when Hanzal was out, nursing an undisclosed injury. In five games, Pouliot played a little over eight minutes per minute and registered one assist.
The Coyotes also have a decision to make on defence. Rookie Michael Stone made his playoff debut in place of David Schlemko Tuesday, and he will go again tonight.
For the Kings, centre Colin Fraser returns to the team after attending to a personal matter, but will not be in the lineup. It means Kyle Clifford will take his place again and Brad Richardson stays in the middle.
The Kings, 10-1 thus far in the playoffs, are trying to change as little as possible. The Coyotes, by contrast, are looking for answers everywhere.
“We’re not playing the way we can and they’re playing really well,” said Vrbata. “That’s what it is. We have to find a way to get better and make it tougher on them. But the frustration is there. That frustration is showing.”
Sometimes, a team that unexpectedly overachieves in the playoffs can have a letdown when it falls behind at this stage of a long season and start to think that no matter what happens, it was a successful season. Vrbata, however, insisted that thinking hasn’t crept into the Coyotes’ locker room yet.
“We said it’s nice to win Round One and Round Two, but that’s not what we play for,” said Vrbata. “It’s not like we are satisfied with where we are. We want to play for the Stanley Cup.”