It may be the start of the greatest comeback in NHL history. Or it could just be a chance to salvage a little pride and dignity from a series that was hurriedly slipping through their fingers.
Either way, the Phoenix Coyotes were not prepared to go quietly into the afternoon sun. On a day when the hometown Los Angeles Kings were poised to advance to the Stanley Cup final for the first time in 19 seasons, the Coyotes put the party on hold for 48 hours anyway, sneaking off with a 2-0 victory Sunday afternoon due in equal parts to Shane Doan’s timely goal-scoring and Mike Smith’s goaltending heroics.
All of L.A.’s loyal supporters - including that new hardcore puck daddy, David Beckham, who his children in tow - were at Staples Centre in anticipation of a coronation. Even that much-sought-after trophy, the Clarence Campbell Bowl, was in the building, along with NHL deputy commissioner Bill Daly, who generally presides over these ceremonies.
But the Coyotes, using a formula that coach Dave Tippett describes on a daily basis as “hanging around the game” hung around this one long enough to put the Kings to sleep. It was their usual classic formula, opportunistic on offence, steady on defence, Smith there to bail them out as needed. It would still take a comeback of epic proportions for Phoenix’s victory to be more than an historical footnote, but the Coyotes now live to play another day - and L.A.’s path to their first Stanley Cup final in 19 years is on hold, for the moment anyway.
“A loss is a loss,” assessed Kings’ forward Justin Williams. “We’ve had a good run, but the next game, Game 5, we’re going to have to come back with a lot of spunk, because they pushed us tonight.”
Doan, for one, appeared unwilling to have the Coyotes’ season end, on the road, in four quick easy steps, which is how it was looking. He elevated his game, as did his centre Antoine Vermette, who had a strong day in the face-off circle and won the most important draw of the night, cleanly and precisely, from Mike Richards to set up Doan’s second, insurance goal.
According to Tippett, Doan’s goals were only the visible tip of the ice berg.
“You don’t see all the things that happen behind the scenes, in the dressing room - how inspirational he is for the guys there and how much he cares about this team and winning,” said Tippett. “When you can do that behind-the-scenes stuff and then back it up with the on-the-ice stuff, it speaks volumes for who he is.
“Our players know and the league knows how strong-willed he is. He went into this game, thinking, ‘we don’t want to be swept.”
Doan acknowledged that it had been pointed out beforehand that he had spent too much time in the series focusing on the physical exchanges - individually, he was credited with 11 hits in the Game 3 loss - at the expense of actually making plays. In the two days between games, he took steps to remedy that.
“That was a big part of our game tonight,” said Doan. “There were a few more times when we had time to take pucks to the net. They’re a good team and they’re playing their game well. We, for the most part, have to play our game better.”
The Kings had all the good scoring chances early, or until Williams received an iffy penalty for goaltender interference that resulted in the ultimate game winner, Doan from the side of the net, roofing a backhander past Quick, stick side. It was the first power-play goal surrendered by the Kings in 30 attempts, dating all the way back to the fourth game of the first-round series against Vancouver.
Williams was mystified by the call: “I didn’t like it, but at the same time, it could have been forgotten if we’d scored a power-play goal.”
True enough. The Kings have been awful on the power play in these playoffs - succeeding at a 9.4 rate going into the game - but it hadn’t been much of an issue, in the same way that an awful power play didn’t cost the Boston Bruins last year during their run to the Stanley Cup.
But any chance that the Kings might have had to come back in the game was lost by their inability to score with the man advantage, especially in the third, when a minor roughing penalty to Doan gave them a chance to make it a one-goal game.
So now the Coyotes get to regroup and the Kings face their first hint of adversity in quite some time. L.A. is undefeated in seven road games in these playoffs which, as Doan pointed out, is a mixed blessing.
“You look at what they’ve done (on the road),” said Doan. “What is it? Nine in a row or something. Everybody’s talking about it; and there’s two ways of looking at it. They’re either due to lose, or we got to find a way to stop them. The law of averages says you’re going to lose eventually on the road.
“If it happens, the next one would be a bad one to lose.”
Consider it a seed planted, a challenge issued - and a sign that maybe there is a breath of life left in the Desert Dogs and their playoff aspirations, such as they are.