GLENDALE, Ariz -- Arguably, no one knows the goaltending matchup in the Phoenix Coyotes-Los Angeles Kings playoff series better than Jason Labarbera, who was in the Kings’ organization when Jonathan Quick was just coming up and now backs up Mike Smith with the Coyotes.
It was Labarbera incidentally who came up with that funny and involved postgame celebration that he and Smith perform whenever the Coyotes win a game. Phoenix will be after its first victory of the series when the teams re-engage tonight at Jobing.com Arena on a day when the local weather forecasters have issued an extreme heat warning for the area, with temperatures exceeding 40C later today.
The Kings emerged with a 4-2 win in the opener, the final goal going into the empty net, and Quick could have been left wearing goat horns, given that he surrendered a first-period goal from centre ice to Coyotes defenceman Derek Morris. Instead, Quick bounced back with a strong game, giving up just one more goal, on a bang-bang-bang play. It was an interesting development, because how a goaltender responds to a gaffe that will fill highlight reels forever sometimes tells you where his mind is at.
At an earlier point in his career, Quick might have let it get to him. On Sunday, he didn’t. At 2-2, Quick had a strong third period and made the saves when he needed to.
That says something about the evolution of his game.
“That’s what makes goalies good,” said Labarbera. “The rest of us give up one like that and our heads might be spinning. But the top guys like that? They find ways to get through it. It’s just like, he doesn’t care, he knows he’s going to make the next save.
“It’s not something that just happens, it’s something that develops over time. You build yourself up to the point, where you think, ‘stuff like that doesn’t matter.’ Obviously, the team over there has a lot of confidence in him. Some teams, they might panic and start spiralling a bit, but they didn’t. They backed him up. He’s been their rock all year.”
Coyotes’ defenceman Keith Yandle, who played high school hockey against Quick and skates with him in the summers in New England, said: “He’s a guy, confidence is No. 1 with him, especially to play in this league, against the best shooters in the world, and guys making plays, it’s a tough spot to be in, but he handles himself well. I don’t think that goal was too weak - it was a pretty hard slapper. It skipped and moved on him.
“We’ve just got to find ways to get more pucks at him and challenge him more.”
Labarbera was playing for the Kings’ AHL affiliate in Manchester when they signed him to his first pro contract and joined the team for the playoffs.
“He had a tough couple of months early on,” said Labarbera, “but he’s obviously figured things out. He’s turned himself into an unreal goalie. Not right now, but he’s fun to watch because he’s so athletic. He plays like he has no goalie gear on. I mean, he’s like Gumby out there. He’s probably got the strongest legs in the league. The guy’s up and down, pushing players around. He’s all over the place. He makes saves just based off his athleticism.”
As for Smith, he joined the Coyotes last summer, as a free agent, replacing Ilya Bryzgalov, with the view that he would be the team’s new No. 1 goalie. Labarbera has watched that unfold and the two have become close friends.
“I knew there were a lot of expectations on him in Tampa and he had a tough go there, he was hurt and stuff,” said Labarbera. “But I knew he was a good goalie, really athletic, and had a good persona about himself. He’s obviously come in here and done well. He’s been unbelievable. He’s the biggest reason why we’re here.”
The Coyotes may make one lineup adjustment today, if defenceman Adrian Aucoin is deemed ready to go. Phoenix moved their defence pairings around in Aucoin’s absence, and had David Schlemko in the line-up. Rusty Klesla and Oliver Ekman-Larsson, who’ve been so good in these playoffs, were a combined minus-5 and essentially had no answer for the Kings’ No. 1 line of Anze Kopitar, Dustin Brown and Justin Williams. If Aucoin can go, he and Klesla will likely be paired together, leaving Ekman-Larsson to play with Michal Rozsival.
According to Coyotes’ coach Dave Tippett, his team needed to make “adjustments all over the board. First and foremost is willing to jump in and win a few more one-on-one battles.
“Our guys recognized that L.A. played a strong game, but I think we can be much better than we were. You can work hard to get to a place, but it’s what you do after you get there that matters. We were around some battles, but once you get yourself into the battle, it’s the next step, how are you going to win the battle.
“For me, sometimes it’s about will and sometimes about skill also - and having the ability to make something positive happen.”