“We don’t want to look too much at the big picture,” Phoenix Coyotes centre Antoine Vermette was saying – and that’s probably wise. The big picture is still too daunting from a Coyotes perspective. They are down 3-1 to the Los Angeles Kings in the NHL’s Western Conference final and still require a historic rally to overcome that deep deficit and actually advance to the Stanley Cup final.
About the best thing you can say about the Coyotes’ chances is that there is still a chance. Had they come up flat one more time – during Sunday’s 2-0 victory in the fourth game of the series – they would have been busy preparing for the off-season and parrying questions about their future in the desert (nothing new on the Greg Jamison sale).
Instead, they will play Game 5 Tuesday night, at home, in front of another sold-out crowd. Apart from the value of adding one more home gate to mitigate the tens of millions in losses absorbed this season, it gives them a chance to plant a little seed of doubt in the Kings’ minds.
Much was made of Los Angeles’s so-so performance in Sunday’s loss, but the Kings really weren’t that bad. They held a 36-21 edge in shots, had the better scoring chances overall, and but for a goalpost here and a good save by Mike Smith there, it could have been a different story.
The Coyotes’ formula for success, as outlined by veteran Ray Whitney, is not that complicated: Timely scoring, a dozen blocked shots, plus exceptional goaltending. Not all that difficult to dissect or explain. It wasn’t so much what L.A. did or didn’t do in Game 4. It’s just that Phoenix was much improved over the skittish, out-of-sync team which showed up for the first three games of the series, and was threatening to get steamrolled right into next year.
“When you have nothing to lose, you throw it all out there and you just see what happens,” said Whitney, who figured his team wasn’t as nervous with the puck last game. “We thought less. They play at such a fast tempo and such a physical game that when you start thinking about it, you kind of slow down.”
Kings defenceman Drew Doughty suggested that his team’s biggest mistake was “we gave them hope last night. We let them back into the series.
“The last couple of games, we really slacked off. We haven’t played our best hockey as a team. Going into the next one in their barn, we have to be at our best – or things are going to change on the series.”
The Kings held an optional practice Monday in El Segundo, Calif., before flying to Glendale, Ariz., in the afternoon. On Tuesday, they’ll put their perfect 7-0 playoff road record on the line in the hopes of advancing to the Stanley Cup final for the first time in 19 years.
According to Kings coach Darryl Sutter, it doesn’t much matter where they’re playing, the task at hand is pretty straightforward: “Try and win the next game. Could be in Tucson or Toledo or in Los Angeles. To me, it has no bearing on anything. It’s always now, today, tomorrow, not last week or next week.”
Sutter tends to bristle when people bring up the past, which is happening more and more often these days with the Kings poised to advance to the final and the New York Rangers lining up as a possible opponent, a match made in corporate heaven. Sutter and the Rangers’ John Tortorella coached against each other in a memorable 2004 Stanley Cup final that went the distance with their former teams, the Calgary Flames and the Tampa Bay Lightning respectively.
Reminiscing isn’t in the Sutter DNA, it would seem.
“The best part of being in the playoffs is it’s always about your next game, not something that happened 30 years ago or two days ago, right?” Sutter said.
But seconds later, Sutter was talking about his years in Chicago, to make a point about team structure – and how that is the common trait among the four teams left standing in this year’s playoffs.
“If you understand the game, the X’s and O’s, you understand leads are better because of structure,” Sutter explained. “Teams play disciplined. It’s a lot easier to play with a lead because you can play as a team always.
“What was Michael Jordan’s famous line? ‘Structure gets me to the fourth quarter and then I take over.’ ”