It was 39C outside Jobing.com Arena just before puck drop for Sunday night’s first game of the Western Conference final between the Los Angeles Kings and the Phoenix Coyotes.
Hockey-weather, Arizona style.
With the indoor temperature checking in at a far more temperate 12C, it probably wasn’t a big surprise that the two teams took turns running hot and cold in a wholly entertaining game that featured a little of everything, including one of the strangest goals in Stanley Cup playoff history. More on that later.
In a game that looked as if it could go either way, it was the Coyotes inability to handle the Kings dynamic duo of Dustin Brown and Anze Kopitar that ultimately decided the issue. As he has done all playoffs long, Brown stepped up again when it mattered most, contributing his seventh goal of the playoffs to break a third-period tie and give the Kings a 4-2 victory over the Coyotes and a 1-0 series lead. Game 2 goes here Tuesday night.
On a night when they were badly outshot and widely outplayed, the Coyotes nevertheless demonstrated their usual resilience. Twice they fell behind. Twice they tied it up. It was the sort of seesaw game that could have swung Phoenix’s way, if the Kings had faltered at all.
But Brown had another one of those nights that’s made him one of the breakout players of these playoffs and took matters in his own hands. Early in the third, defenceman Slava Voynov fed him a neat, clean head-manning pass. Brown broke between the Coyotes’ defence and found enough open ice to overpower goaltender Mike Smith with a heavy shot.
Smith needed to be brilliant again for Phoenix, given that Los Angeles was threatening to hit the 50-shot mark in the game. It was an overpowering display by a team that is now 18-3-3 in its last 24 outings, playoff and regular season, and whose confidence is growing with each passing game.
Kopitar and Dwight King also scored for Los Angeles, while Derek Morris and Mikkel Boedker replied for the Coyotes, whose coach Dave Tippett was unhappy with how his team performed.
“The execution and the will to get things done is going to have to improve greatly if we’re going to have a chance in this series,” said Tippett. “As the playoffs go on, the bar gets higher and higher - and we didn’t have enough guys rise with the bar tonight. We had some games like this [earlier in the playoffs] but not to the point where we got competed the way we did tonight.”
For most of these playoffs, it has been the Dustin Brown and Jonathan Quick Show making a difference for the Kings, Brown scoring key goals, Quick making important saves. Quick had one really bad moment early - giving up a goal to the Morris from centre ice - but otherwise wasn’t tested nearly as much as his opposite number, Smith.
But Quick was sharp when he needed to be, as the Coyotes made a desperate 11th-hour push to force overtime.
The Kings just barely crept into the playoffs this season; and their struggles could largely be attributed to a lack of game breakers. They finished 29th in the season in scoring, and only in the final month did their offence emerge from a lengthy slumber. But ever since he survived the NHL trade deadline in a Kings’ uniform, Brown has been one of the team’s playoff stalwarts. Comparisons to the Calgary Flames’ Jarome Iginla abound, and the only part that Brown hasn’t matched in the past - the scoring - is starting to come around.
“He’s playing his best hockey in the six years I’ve been here,” said Kopitar. “I think he realizes we need him to play like that to be successful. Right now, he’s clicking on the ice and making plays. He’s getting the bounces, but he’s scoring big goals obviously, and that’s what good captains and good leaders do.”
Brown became the captain five years ago at age 23 and concedes: “With the Kings, it was one of those things where I was named captain and i probably didn’t really know what it meant to be a leader. I was named and it’s been a learning process for me.
“With this team in particular, it’s just setting an example on the ice, in the way that I play. I think if I do all the little things right, and play the right way, it makes it really easy for everyone else to fall in line.”
It did last night.
Both teams were coming off lengthy layoffs - Los Angeles seven days, Phoenix six - and the fresh legs on L.A.’s side were evident almost from puck drop. Kopitar scored early on a backhand high on Smith, but then Quick was victimized by a goal that will likely appear on highlight packages for decades to come.
It came from centre ice off the stick of Phoenix defenceman Derek Morris, on a crafty move by a veteran player. Putting his head down as if he were about to rim the puck in, hard around the boards, Morris instead hammered it right on the net at the last second, catching Quick leaning the wrong way. It brought back memories of telling, untimely goals from playoffs past and briefly made former Vancouver Canucks’ goaltender Dan Cloutier a trending Twitter topic (Cloutier gave up a similar sort of goal years ago against the Detroit Red Wings’ Nicklas Lidstrom).
But Quick has spent the season rescuing the Kings from various jams and so presumably, they figured they owed him one.
“I think we just felt we had to get a couple for Quickie,” said Kopitar. “He’s been bailing out all season and a few times in the playoffs too, so I don’t think anybody was concerned or worried about it. We just looked around and said, ‘maybe we should win this one for him.’”
L.A. regained the lead at the 8:02 mark of the second period, a two-on-one between Mike Richards and Dwight King, but the Coyotes capitalized on a fine individual play, Antoine Vermette knocking Drew Doughty off the puck, Shane Doan centering it to Boedker to tie it again. At 2-2 after 40, the Coyotes still had a chance, but couldn’t muster the necessary push to get over the top.
“We weren’t close in that game,” said Tippett. “We got beat in every facet of the game. Hopefully, we can learn some lessons from it.”
King scored his second of the night, into an empty net, to put the finishing touches on the victory.
“That’s what the post-season is all about - playing for each other; playing with heart and determination - and that’s what our team is doing,” said Doughty, after his team fired 48 shots at Smith. “The more shots we get on him, he’s not going to save every one. A few are going to get by him. That’s exactly what happened tonight.”