It was already 2-0 for the visiting Los Angeles Kings Tuesday night when the Phoenix Coyotes decided it was time to throw the game away. Well, why not? It’s only the Stanley Cup semi-finals. Why not completely go goofy and let Kings captain Dustin Brown get so deeply under their collective skins that they couldn’t function any more?
So there was Coyotes captain Shane Doan, earning a major penalty for boarding the Kings’ Trevor Lewis at the same time as teammate Daymond Langkow was being ticketed for slashing Brown. Seconds later, a rattled-looking Mike Smith took a lumberjack chop at Brown who, for going down in a heap, earned a diving penalty on the play. Diving? Bizarre.
And then in the third period, the most egregious infraction of all: Coyotes centre Martin Hanzal, lining up Brown from the faceoff circle in, ramming him into the boards head-first.
NHL disciplinary chief Brendan Shanahan has had a couple of tame playoff rounds to catch his breath, after dinging the Coyotes’ Raffi Torres with a 25-game ban for his first-round hit on the Chicago Blackhawks’ Marian Hossa, but he’s going to have a busy docket to review Wednesday.
“I’ve probably been involved in dirtier games,” Brown said. “There were some hits out there that weren’t good, but it’s one of those things where guys are playing hard, and we capitalized on the opportunities we had.”
Of the two hits, Hanzal’s was by far the most dangerous, catching a vulnerable Brown a couple of feet away from the boards. Players have been unilaterally instructed to pull up on those hits. Hanzal inexplicably didn’t get the memo.
Kings coach Darryl Sutter wasn’t overly upset with the Doan hit on Lewis, because he thought Lewis turned his back to the play.
“It’s probably more of a hockey play,” Sutter said. “I didn’t have a big problem with that. But the one on Brownie. It’s hard to say from the bench, but I didn’t think the puck was even close, was it?”
No, not close.
With the Kings up 2-0 in the series, Hanzal may not be around to play Thursday night’s third game at the Staples Center in Los Angeles, where L.A. can put a stranglehold on the series.
The Kings tied an NHL record by winning their seventh consecutive road game in these playoffs and their ninth in a row dating back to last season. Quick also won his ninth in a row on the road, only the second goalie in history, after the New York Islanders’ Billy Smith, to do so.
All that extended time with the two-man advantage provided the impetus for the Kings to snap out of a playoff-long power-play drought. Jeff Carter scored three times, twice with the man advantage, while Dwight King’s first-period goal stood up as the winner.
“That’s how you make them pay, by capitalizing on the power play - and tonight, we did,” said centre Anze Kopitar. “It was huge. Getting the third goal and getting a little more insurance for the third period was good.”
Carter sightings have been few and far between in these playoffs. His only other goal came in the rout of the St. Louis Blues in the second round. Carter had one of those right-place, right-time kind of games, and his scoring outburst had a lot to do with the spade work variously down by Dustin Penner, Kopitar and Brown on his goals.
“He’s been getting good opportunities, so it’s good to see him cash in,” Sutter said. “You knew it was coming. You know with guys like that, it’s percentages, right?
“We tried to give everybody minutes and he probably had big minutes. We used him more killing penalties and obviously, on the power play, he’s out there. We need something out of everybody.”
On the day of the game, Phoenix coach Dave Tippett spoke bravely of his team’s resilience, and how so little collectively fazes his group. Defenceman Derek Morris talked about competing better and smarter. It all sounded good in theory, and reflected the kind of season the Coyotes have had, one in which they won two previous rounds against more flashy opponents. But the Kings are on a different level at the moment, clicking on all these disparate cylinders throughout the line-up; and the Coyotes didn’t help their cause by allowing their composure to slip so badly.
“We played hard,” said Coyotes’ defenceman Keith Yandle. “We just found our way into the penalty box too much.”
The best news of all, according to Kings defenceman Rob Scuderi, was that: “For all the guys who were on the receiving end of those hits, they’re all fine and we can move on and go back to Los Angeles.”
Brown was asked if the Coyotes looked like a frustrated squad.
“If that’s the case, we’ve got to keep going and keep finishing our checks,” Brown said. “When you have everybody finishing checks, it can get frustrating. The intensity’s high out there. It’s important for us to understand if they are frustrated out there, we’ve got to keep doing what we’re doing.”
What they’ve done is won 10 of 11 games in these playoffs, after starting as the eighth and final seed in the Western Conference. Everything is falling into place at precisely the right moment - the goaltending, the timely scoring, relentless defence. At this stage, it would take a major reversal of fortunes for the Coyotes to find a way back into the series, or for the Kings to fritter it away.
They are the better team and Tuesday night, they were also the smarter team. A lethal combination, at the moment.