Puckin' Around With Spector
by Lyle Richardson on 05/02/12 at 10:19 AM ET
During the first round of this year’s NHL playoffs, the NHL Network has several players wearing microphones, of which the best clips were featured in “Best Sights and Sounds of Round 1”.
Among the clips were Phoenix Coyotes Keith Yandle, following one of his team’s victories over the Chicago Blackhawks, yelling to a teammate in the post-game celebration, “Are you not entertained?”
It’s a line from the 2000 film “Gladiator”, but one which would be appropriate in describing the performance of the Coyotes thus far in this year’s playoffs.
Despite finishing the regular season with their first division title in franchise history, few observers expected much from the Coyotes in the post-season, ranking them once again as an underdog.
It’s understandable. The ongoing uncertainty over their future in Arizona aside, the Coyotes hadn’t won a playoff round since 1987, when they were the original Winnipeg Jets.
Since moving to Phoenix in 1996, the Coyotes twice played in opening round series which went a full seven games, in 1999 against the St. Louis Blues, and in 2010 against the Detroit Red Wings. Both ended in heartbreaking defeats.
Facing the Coyotes in the opening round this spring were the Chicago Blackhawks. Only two years removed from a Stanley Cup championship and carrying a star-studded roster (Patrick Kane, Marian Hossa, Duncan Keith, Brent Seabrook and team captain Jonathan Toews), this was a team which knew what it took to win in the post-season.
By contrast, the Coyotes iced Yandle, considered among the league’s top defensemen, ageing winger Ray Whitney, a 62-point forward in Radim Vrbata, long-time Coyotes captain Shane Doan (still seeking his first ever playoff series win), a handful of promising young players whose names were scarcely known around the league, and a collection of cast-off veterans.
They also had a genuine standout goaltender in Mike Smith, whose numbers this season (38-18-10, 2.21 GAA, .930 SP, 8 shutouts) ranked among the league’s best. Still, he was something of a mystery to those who recalled his struggles with his previous team, the Tampa Bay Lightning.
It was also assumed the Coyotes would play a dull, trapping defensive style in hopes of slowing the Blackhawks vaunted offense, leading to expectations of a low-scoring series.
In most predictions of the Coyotes-Blackhawks series, it was expected Smith might steal a game or two for the “Desert Dawgs”, but ultimately the Blackhawks depth in talent and experience would prevail.
The series indeed featured Smith, but in a starring role, as his Coyotes upsets the Blackhawks in six games.
Sadly, Smith’s efforts and that of his teammates were overshadowed by an ugly hit by Coyotes forward Raffi Torres upon Hossa, knocking the latter out of the playoffs with a suspected concussion, and earning Torres a 25-game suspension and near-universal scorn for his head-hunting hits.
Those whose knowledge of that series was limited to the Torres hit and the highlights of Smith’s play missed what was a fast-paced, dramatic series, in which five of the six games were settled in overtime.
It was a series which could be considered a formal introduction for most NHL fans to promising Coyotes - reliable defenseman Oliver Ekman- Larsson, forwards Mikkel Boedker (two overtime winners), and Martin Hanzal - moving into starring roles.
Forwards Antoine Vermette, Taylor Pyatt, Daymond Langkow, Gilbert Brule and Kyle Chipchura –most of whom were part of the aforementioned cast-offs from other teams - proved invaluable for the Coyotes at both ends of the ice.
Rostislav Klesla, playing his first full season with the Coyotes, displayed the solid, two-way form which once made him the anchor of the Columbus Blue Jackets.
Their victory over the Blackhawks was considered an upset, but while their long-overdue playoff series victory was a “feel-good” story, they weren’t given much of a chance against their next opponent, the Nashville Predators.
Smith was a terrific goalie, but of course he’d be no match for Predators starter Pekka Rinne, who earned a Vezina nomination this season.
Yes, Yandle was an established star defenseman, Klesla was playing well, and Ekman-Larsson had promise, but they’d be no match for the Predators vaunted blueline, led by stars Shea Weber and Ryan Suter.
Sure, some Coyotes veterans and youngsters had stepped up offensively against Chicago, but they were facing a Predators team which was eighth overall in scoring this season, and made short work of the well-respected Detroit Red Wings in round one.
The fact the Coyotes more than held their own against the Predators during the regular season (winning the season series 2-1-1) was dismissed. After all, this was the playoffs, and the Predators had loaded up for a serious run for the Stanley Cup with late-season acquisitions, including the return of prodigal son Alexander Radulov from the KHL.
Those who made their predictions for this series – including me – expected a low-scoring defensive match-up featuring the anticipated goaltending duel between Rinne and Smith, but ultimately, the Predators depth and experience (sound familiar?) were expected to make the difference.
In other words, this series was expected to be the most boring of the second round, exciting only to Nashville and Phoenix fans.
Instead, the opening two games of this series provided plenty of surprises and excitement.
Low-scoring? 15 goals were scored in those two games. The goaltending was good, but not great, but Smith was the better of the two, as Rinne seemed uncharacteristically rattled, probably because his defensemen struggled to contain the Coyotes speed and aggressive forecheck.
Offensively, the Coyotes continued to get contributions throughout their lineup. Hanzal, Vermette, Pyatt, Boedker and Hanzal continued to cash in, while experienced scorers Whitney, Doan and a now- healthy Vrbata also found the back of the Nashville net.
The Predators undoubtedly felt the effects of a lengthy layoff between series in Game One, a 4-3 overtime victory by the Coyotes. Game Two, however, was their worst of this year’s playoffs, prompting head coach Barry Trotz to criticize his players’ performance.
Only two games into this series, the Coyotes stunned the Predators and the rest of the hockey world by putting the latter into a serious 0-2 deficit.
They’ve served notice they won’t be pushovers, while pushing the Preds into two “must-win” games in Nashville to prevent falling into a hole so deep in this series they can’t escape.
Of course, this series isn’t over yet. It would be foolish to count the Predators out (despite the distraction of their recent one-games suspensions of Alexander Radulov and Andrew Kostitsyn for breaking curfew), let alone assume the Coyotes will sweep them out of the playoffs.
Even if the ‘Yotes were to eliminate the Preds, the road will only get tougher.
For a team, however, few expected to even win a playoff round, let alone push a Stanley Cup favorite into an early series deficit, the Phoenix Coyotes have not only surprised, they’ve entertained, turning the remainder of their series against Nashville into a “must-watch” for hockey fans.
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About Puckin' Around With Spector
I’m Lyle Richardson. You might know me from my website, Spector’s Hockey, my thrice-weekly rumor column at THN.com, my weekly column at Eishockey News (if you read German), and my former gig as a contributing writer to Foxsports.com.
I’ll be writing a once-weekly blog here with my take on all things NHL. Who knows, I might actually find time to debunk a trade rumor or two.