One of the key questions for this Phoenix-Detroit series -- and really for anyone paying attention to the NHL's top Cinderella story -- is just how do the Coyotes manage to keep this up?
This is my third day here in Detroit, and I'm beginning to get a pretty good feel for the series, one that I think most expected the Wings to roll through. There are a couple of themes so far, but the main one we keep coming back to, over and over, is just how well Coyotes coach Dave Tippett's system has worked to date. You could see it in action in Game 3 when Phoenix had a lead, as they looked a bit like the ultra-defensive German teams in international hockey, pulling five men back behind the centre line to wait for the Wings to try and break in.
Facing trapping teams isn't really anything new for the Wings or coach Mike Babcock given they've been in plenty of these Western Conference playoff battles over the years, but Tippett has definitely managed to reduce the impact of the talent disparity in the series.
What surprises me the most, though, is that Phoenix has found ways to win despite the fact netminder Ilya Bryzgalov has been relatively ordinary for the most part.
Detroit has a few pretty savvy defensive players who know exactly what's happening on the ice, and I asked a couple of them yesterday and today what exactly they can do to bust through the wall Tippett and Co. are putting up.
Here's defenceman Niklas Kronwall, who's been logging about 24 minutes a night: "As soon as we win the puck (in the defensive zone), we have to get it up right away. Anytime we make that D-to-D pass or we go over, then all of a sudden, they'll have the five guys back. Anytime we have the chance to catch them, the puck's got to go up and we have to go after it right away."
And captain Nick Lidstrom, who was an ugly minus-3 in Game 3: "They've been playing us real hard so we know that it's going to take a lot of effort and playing smart, too. You have to play with patience in a game like this; we can't open ourselves up defensively to gamble and take chances. You have to play real well in your own zone."
(Goaltending's a concern for Detroit, too, as I wrote earlier today. Jimmy Howard has not been good, and I think his nerves have gotten to him a little in this series. He's by far the less experienced netminder in this series, so there's one advantage Phoenix has. I think Osgood's an option if Detroit loses tonight.)
The thing is, the Wings have the talent advantage overall, and I still expect they'll win Game 4 and find a way to prevail in this series. If you look back at the Coyotes' regular season, they picked up 28 per cent of their 50 wins this season in the shootout (which won't be a factor in the postseason) and have an extremely weak offence and power play. ( Missing Doan doesn't help there.)
That said, the gap between the NHL's elite teams (which many still consider the Wings to be) and the Phoenixes has narrowed to the point that there's a real "who knows?" factor in this series. If the Coyotes win Game 4 tonight, suddenly they have a 3-1 series lead with two games to play at home, where they only lost 10 games in regulation all season.
Phoenix players continue to get asked about being the underdogs and a surprise in this series, but the salary cap has mitigated the talent gap in a lot of ways. I look at the bodies Detroit lost in terms of depth last summer in Marian Hossa, Jiri Hudler, Ty Conklin and Mikael Samuelsson, etc., and ask myself if they'd be up 2-1 in this series with them in the lineup?
The Coyotes, meanwhile, were way under the cap at the trade deadline and brought in all sorts of depth. They're better for that now, with a newcomer like Lee Stempniak stepping into a scoring role with Doan ailing.
They can definitely win this series -- and playing like they did in Game 3, do some damage in the playoffs. If the Minnesota Wild of 2003 could advance to the conference finals, why not the '10 Coyotes?
I'll wrap this up with some words from Phoenix defenceman Ed Jovanovski on that theme:
"You can't read too much into what's going on on the outside... If people are surprised then they've been surprised all year.
"I mean, they have players there that have a very high skill level. I think nowadays with the salary cap you've got to manage who you can keep and who you can let go, but Detroit always seems to find ways to get star players. They have players that are definitely intimidating over there, coming down the ice. But I think you look around the league, the parity is good. I think any team has the ability to beat any other team on any given night. It's your will to win. Does the salary cap do that? Yeah.
"Obviously it's no secret there's financial issues with our team and to lure someone in on a big-ticket deal is tough to do. So it's got to be done by committee and you can bring a few guys in on the lower end and hopefully it works out. That's been the case here. Donny did a good job adding veteran players that have played a long time in the league and you put it all together and find a way to make it work."