Because Game 1 of the NHL’s Western Conference final between the Los Angeles Kings and Phoenix Coyotes has a 5 p.m. Pacific start time, both teams opted to skip the morning skates Sunday. Rather than drag their players unnecessarily to the rink early, the teams settled for short, but hard practices Saturday at the Jobing.com Arena, trying to shed the rust that accompanies their lengthy playoff layoffs.
The Kings have been off work since last Sunday, after sweeping the St. Louis Blues in four games. The Coyotes have been off since Monday, after eliminating the Nashville Predators in five games. Underdogs entering the round, both teams set the tone for their respective series by winning the first game.
Kings’ coach Darryl Sutter knows that so much time off this deep in the playoffs can take away a team’s edge. Often, at this time of year, a team can win or lose the series in the first game – because of the emotional leg-up that a win can provide.
“Always when there’s time off, it doesn’t matter if it’s regular season or playoffs, whatever it is, if you ever get four or five days (off), you’re always concerned about the emotional level of the group,” said Sutter. “Always. And I’m sure they’re the same way.”
The Kings are a perfect 5-0 on the road in these playoffs, are 8-1 overall and have the best defensive record in the post-season, surrendering just six goals to the Blues in four games. The Coyotes are just a shade behind them, No. 2 overall, and so it isn’t much of a stretch to suggest that the series will ultimately come down to which goaltender, Phoenix’s Mike Smith or Los Angeles’ Jonathan Quick, will bend first. Based on their performances thus far in the series, it is unlikely that either will break.
At the conference semi-final stage, the NHL takes over the handling of the public relations, which means that players and coaches alike start shuffling to the podium for availabilities in a more formal press conference setting.
At Saturday’s availability, the Coyotes’ collective mood was quite light, with Smith, defenceman Keith Yandle and team captain Shane Doan all doing their version of Comedy Central. Smith wasn’t necessarily channeling his inner Ilya Bryzgalov, but he was getting off a number of funny lines, most of them at Doan’s expense. Someone began by telling Smith they’d done a quick Wikipedia search of his name.
“How many came up?” asked Smith, to laughs all around.
Just one Mike Smith that plays goal in the NHL at the moment. Smith noted that the key nugget in that file – that he was the only NHL goaltender to ever score a goal, record a shutout and get into a fight in the same game, which would be the netminding equivalent of a Gordie Howe hat trick – was incorrect.
“I scored. I got a shutout and a win, but I never got in a fight. The Gordie Howe hat trick is out. I don’t like to fight.”
Smith, of course, almost scored an empty-net goal versus St. Louis and according to Kings’ captain Dustin Brown, came close in the regular-season finale against Los Angeles as well. One of the primary differences between Smith and the comedian he replaced, Bryzgalov, is that he handles the puck so much better than his predecessor, which according to Yandle, gives the team’s defence a helping hand.
“I think Smitty is a guy, he sees the game well, as if he’s a defenceman or a player back there,” said Yandle, adding: “You can talk to him about hockey or anything before, during or after the game. It’s fun to have a guy like him around.”
“Every game, doesn’t matter if he’s on a roll, it’s the exact same thing,” said Doan. “That’s one of the great things. It doesn’t matter how everything is going, he’s going to make sure everybody around him, it’s still the same. It’s nice when you have your starting goalie to be like that. We enjoy it. We have fun with him.”
Smith said his goal that the pressure associated with the playoffs means things can get “pretty nerve-wracking” so the goal is “to keep it light, especially before big games. It takes a lot of energy out if you’re serious all the time.
“It’s been a fun year,” continued Smith, who joined the Coyotes as a free agent last summer and revitalized his career with the move. “It’s been a very easy transition for me to come into this group. Obviously we have great leadership. Everyone in the locker room gets along. That’s a huge part of why we are where we are right away.”
The Coyotes will play today without defenceman Adrian Aucoin, ruled out of the game by coach Dave Tippett. It means David Schlemko stays in and gets his fourth start of the playoffs.
Coyotes’ general manager Don Maloney was asked about the decision to hire Tippett after Wayne Gretzky stepped down three years ago as Coyotes’ coach, just before the start of the 2009-10 season. Tippett was available because he’d been fired by the Dallas Stars, but he had multiple years left on his contract and could have continued to draw a salary without working. Instead, he took the Coyotes’ job, even though the franchise was shrouded in ownership uncertainty at the time.
Maloney revealed Saturday how that whole process unfolded, noting that he had had an initial conversation with Gretzky back in May of 2009 and formed the impression that Gretzky wouldn’t return as coach.
“He never said it. In our initial conversation, he asked me if I didn’t, do you have a guy, because I’ve got a guy. We both had the same guy. He’s sitting to my left. He had just been let go from Dallas.
“He knew the division, he knew the conference, he had great success in Dallas, he’s won everywhere. Been a coach in the minor leagues, won in the minor leagues. It was a great fit.
“Really, of all the years since the bankruptcy, the only little push-back I had with the NHL at the time when I was signing him was a little bit on the term of the contract. If you look back at the time, they wanted a short-term deal. I said, ‘a short-term deal isn’t going to work here.’ It was just one short conversation.
“I have to give him credit. Looking at our situation, I’m not sure I would have come into this mess at the time. I think he looked at it and saw that this is the chance to build something from the ground up. Fortunately we’ve been relatively successful to date.”