SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. – The Phoenix Coyotes have lost players to injuries and suspensions. They get off to slow starts, give up goals late in regulation. Nothing ever seems to be easy.
So how do they handle the adversity? Shrug their shoulders and grit their teeth.
Buoyed by a band-together resiliency that comes with having no real star players and an uncertain future in the desert, Phoenix has scrapped its way to the doorstep of the franchise’s first playoff series victory in 25 years.
Leading the Chicago Blackhawks 3-1 after Mikkel Boedker’s second straight overtime winner, the Coyotes can close out the testy series in what figures to be a charged-up Jobing.com Arena for Game 5 Saturday night.
“There’s two ways you can go with adversity: you can go poor us or you can look at it as a motivating factor. Our group looks at it as a motivating factor, simple as that,” Coyotes coach Dave Tippett said Friday. “The adversity that our team goes through on and off the ice is something that has made our group a lot stronger. You get into tough situations, nobody gets flustered.”
The Coyotes have looked almost uncomfortable unless they’re on the cusp of calamity, losing players, momentum and leads.
They’ve found ways to fight back almost every time.
Game 1 against the Blackhawks, Phoenix lost leading goal-scorer Radim Vrbata on his first shift, gave up a goal with 14 seconds left, won it in overtime.
Game 2: Martin Hanzal goes down early, Chicago gets another goal to go in late, this time with 5 seconds left. The Coyotes lost that game, but rallied in Game 3 in Chicago, winning in overtime without Hanzal or forward Lauri Korpikoski.
The pattern continued in Game 4 Thursday night.
Hanzal and Korpikoski again were out and scrappy forward Raffi Torres didn’t play after being suspended for a chin-lifting hit on Marian Hossa in the previous game. Another player was lost when enforcer Paul Bissonnette received a game misconduct because he didn’t have his jersey tied down and it came off during a fight with Brandon Bollig.
If that wasn’t enough, Phoenix again gave up another late tying goal, this one by Michael Frolik with 1:26 left to make the series the first since 1951—second ever—to open with four straight overtime games.
No matter to the Coyotes.
Taking a been-here-before approach during the intermission, they charged out of the locker room and ended it quickly, with Boedker squeezing a puck between Chicago goalie Corey Crawford’s pads 2:15 into overtime.
The victory puts Phoenix on the cusp of its first playoff series victory since 1987, when the franchise was still the Winnipeg Jets.
Given the way the series has gone so far, it isn’t likely to be easy.
For a group that’s played the past three seasons without an owner and uncertain future, they almost wouldn’t have it any other way.
“We’ve joked about it: It’s hockey the hard way,” Coyotes captain Shane Doan said. “You don’t want to make it easy, you’ve got to make it hard. It’s been fun, though.”
Chicago hasn’t enjoyed it much.
The Blackhawks have shown some resiliency of their own, rallying to force overtime with late goals three times.
They just haven’t been able to finish it off.
With chances to win all four games, Chicago has come through just once, winning Game 2 in Phoenix on Bryan Bickell’s goal in overtime.
On the brink of elimination, the Blackhawks need to conjure up a rally quickly. They did it on the way to winning the Stanley Cup in 2010 and rallied to force a Game 7 last year against Vancouver after trailing the series 3-0.
Fail on Saturday and it’ll be an off-season of looking back at what could have been, all those near-misses gnawing at them until camp starts next season.
“Sure we can feel confident; we’ve won three playoff games in a row before,” Blackhawks forward Patrick Kane said. “But you can’t win three in one night. (We just have) to focus on one game; every period, every shift can be the difference.”
The biggest task for the Blackhawks will be solving Coyotes goalie Mike Smith.
One of the NHL’s best goalies during his first full season as a No. 1, Smith has been superb through most of the series, almost singlehandedly carrying the Coyotes at times. Shaking off a blow to the head by Chicago’s Andrew Shaw in Game 2—one that left him lying on the ice for five minutes—”Smitty” has frustrated the Blackhawks with his ability to move pucks from outside the crease and to stop almost everything that comes at him.
When Chicago has had success against Smith, it’s been by creating traffic in front of him. The Blackhawks have done it for stretches, particularly with late flurries that led to tying goals in three games, but haven’t done it enough to gets pucks past him.
“He’s a great goaltender and he’s going to make the saves that he sees,” Blackhawks forward Patrick Sharp said. “You look at every goal we’ve scored it’s been bodies at the net, deflections, screens, ugly goals. That’s the way we’ve got to be successful.”
Phoenix has scored a couple of ugly goals against Crawford, which may lead to a change.
Though steady through most of the series, Crawford has given up what some consider soft goals in overtime the past two games: Boedker from a sharp angle in Game 3, Boedker between his pads Thursday night.
With veteran Ray Emery waiting, Chicago coach Joel Quenneville could opt to make a change for Game 5, though he wasn’t ready to reveal his hand just yet.
“We’re talking about that,” Quenneville said before the team left for the desert on Friday. “We’ll talk about our scenario. I don’t foresee making any announcements.”
One player will certainly be out; Hossa’s condition hasn’t changed and he isn’t making the trip to Phoenix.
Torres had his hearing with the NHL on Friday, but the length of his suspension isn’t expected to be known until sometime before the game on Saturday.
The way it’s gone for the Coyotes, it may not matter who’s on the ice for them.
AP Sports Writer Rick Gano in Chicago contributed to this report.