Phoenix Coyotes' Shane Doan smiles as he celebrates with Mikkel Boedker in a series win over the Nashville Predators.
Photograph by: Ross D. Franklin, AP
GLENDALE, Ariz. — Maybe it was an omen.
On the day the Phoenix Coyotes' latest prospective ownership group was introduced to the media, pre-game — is that three now, or four? — the National Hockey League's feisty stepchildren took the next big stride in their amazing journey through the Western Conference playoffs.
Second-period goals by Derek Morris and Martin Hanzal, very much against the flow of play, and standout goaltending by Mike Smith lifted the Coyotes to a 2-1 victory that eliminated the Nashville Predators in five games.
It was a joyous scene inside a loud and packed Jobing.com Arena, where the sellout crowd of 17,182 was shown highlights of the news conference with commissioner Gary Bettman and the new ownership face, Greg Jamison, between periods.
"As a group, we're optimistic," said Coyotes captain Shane Doan, "but until someone comes in here and tells me, 'I'm your owner' and I get to shake his hand, it's going to be pretty low key. We'll stay focusing on hockey."
And they've done that magnificently.
"Obviously there's been some adversity here that a lot of other teams don't have to go through," said coach Dave Tippett, "and it's very rewarding to know that our players have put that on the back burner and just moved forward and tried to win. Ultimately, our players realize that if we win, it's good for everybody, for coaches, trainers, management, good for the city of Glendale, it's good for Phoenix."
But it was a crushing defeat for the Predators, who were seen as a team that might have finally assembled the components to go all the way, until two players who were among the last of those pieces brought in by general manager David Poile helped derail a squad that had been built on hard work, dedication and selflessness.
"I don't think there's a team that's done anything special in sport that hasn't gone through some adversity," Nashville coach Barry Trotz said at the morning skate. "There's moments that pass you by. You'll look back 20 years from now and say, 'That was the moment.'"
When the Preds look back, it will be on the moment they learned two of their key offensive forwards, Alexander Radulov and Andrei Kostitsyn, had jumped curfew the night before Game 2, leading to Trotz's decision to keep them out of Games 3 and 4.
The Preds gave up just one goal in their two home games, but lost the latter 1-0, and only reinstated the two miscreants because they were desperate for offence, facing elimination in Game 5. It didn't help.
"It's just the way the series has gone, we had 10 scoring chances tonight by our count," said Trotz. "That's a good evening's work against a good hockey club, but there's only two statistics that count — how many goals they got, and how many goals we got at the end of the night."
"This year, that's parity. That's the NHL. Some teams lost out in the first round that no one ever thought would lose. That's the way the league is right now. We couldn't bury our chances."
"We tried to make the chances they did get as contested as possible," said Tippett. "We had a lot of guys blocking shots, we made it muddy down in front of our net — and the mud won out, in the end."
Despite a wide edge in play in the first two periods, the Predators let the Coyotes escape the first with a scoreless tie, then Phoenix took the lead on a long screened shot by Morris early in the second period, and stretched it to 2-0 on another just like it, this one by Martin Hanzal, who was set up in the high slot by Kyle Chipchura.
The play had begun in the Coyotes' end, where Preds lifer David Legwand was tripped in front of the Phoenix net and complained for a penalty that wasn't given while the 'Yotes were going the other way and scoring.
Hanzal's goal came several minutes after the Predators were absolutely robbed on three gold-plated scoring chances in succession. Roman Josi's shot went off Smith's blocker and then the post, Shea Weber followed up with a backhand that a diving Smith somehow got a piece of, and Josi appeared to have an open net until two Coyotes slid in front of his shot, which was blocked by Mikkel Boedker.
It was that kind of night, and series, for the Predators — and just the opposite for the opportunistic, counter-attacking Coyotes, who scored timely goals, and just enough of them, to break the Preds' hearts . . . at least those of them that weren't fractured by the goaltending heroics of Smith.
Nashville finally broke through in the game's 55th minute, when Colin Wilson niftily redirected Legwand's pass from the right-wing boards past Smith's blocker, guaranteeing a white-knuckle final 5:59 for the home side, and their fans.
"Yeah, we're not too comfortable with a two-goal lead, so we've got to try to make it a one-goal lead," laughed Doan.
"Coyote Ugly. That's kind of our theme right now," said Smith, who stopped 33 of 34 Nashville shots, while the Coyotes managed just 17 on Pekka Rinne.
Somehow, they hung on, and Smith nearly capped it with an empty-net goal — his long, lofted clearance sailing just a foot or two wide, with 1.2 seconds left.
In the end, if the day's events weren't quite enough to guarantee great times ahead for the Coyotes, the night's happenings were.
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