GLENDALE, Ariz. – The Phoenix Coyotes are back on their heels, the inability to get much of a speed bump in front of the Red Wing Express putting them a game from elimination.
A much bigger issue looms in the back of their minds: Game 4 Wednesday at Jobing.com Arena could be their final game in the desert.
The players don’t want to talk about the murky ownership situation; they’re too focused on trying to take the first step in the monumental climb to get back in the series.
Coach Dave Tippett doesn’t want to shy away from the elephant dressed like a coyote in the room, though.
Along with focusing on the usual Xs and Os, he plans to bring up the fact this could be the last game in Arizona, let his players know this is a chance to show everyone in the Valley of the Sun what they’re made of before possibly heading off for good.
“There’s been a lot of speculation, so here’s some speculation: the deal’s done, we’re staying,” Tippett said with a laugh Tuesday before turning serious.
“It will be the ultimate test of our mindset and how we’re going to deal with it. We talk about using it as a motivating factor, not as something that’s poor us. That’s been our mandate from Day 1 and that won’t change tomorrow.”
Phoenix has a lot of work to do to go out, if this is it, with a win. The Coyotes need to play better 5-on-5, get more from goalie Ilya Bryzgalov and somehow find a way to slow down the Red Wings’ swarming-bees scoring lines.
What they won’t get is any sympathy from Detroit. After needing seven gruelling games to rid themselves of Phoenix last season, the Red Wings want this series to end quickly.
Take care of business in Game 4, the Red Wings can head back home, let their bodies heal a little—particularly leading scorer Henrik Zetterberg—and go through some light practices while most of the other teams in the Western Conference beat up on each other.
“The teams that win it (Stanley Cup) play less games than everybody else,” Red Wings coach Mike Babcock said. “Everyone talks about best of seven, but to me it’s a race to four (wins). We don’t want to play any more games than we have to.”
Detroit has dominated most of the series, scoring 12 goals while limiting Phoenix’s chances behind its blue line.
The Red Wings were carried the first two games by Pavel Datsyuk, their dynamic, shoot-through-the-legs centre accounting for five of the team’s eight goals with two scores and three assists.
Detroit spread it around in Game 3, getting four goals from four different players, all in the opening minutes of each period: Ruslan Salei and Drew Miller 44 seconds apart in the opening three minutes of the game, Valtteri Filppula nearly as quickly in the second period and Johan Franzen’s score 45 seconds into the third.
Now, the Red Wings have the Coyotes bobbing on the ropes and want to send them to the ice for the count.
“It’s important to keep the momentum going,” Red Wings defenceman Nicklas Lidstrom said. “That fourth win is always the toughest one. You face a team that’s facing elimination and they’re going to be a desperate team, so it’s going to be another tough game for us.”
To have a chance, the Coyotes may need to get out of their own way.
Jobing was hopping before Game 3 and so were the players, sending any Red Wing they could get a shoulder on into the boards. The problem was that they were maybe trying a little too hard, forgetting their responsibilities on the ice for the sake of trying to knock someone down.
The Coyotes said the first two goals by Salei and Miller at the beginning of Game 3 were a little lucky, that guys were just throwing pucks to the net and not really shooting, but there also were breakdowns to even set up the chances. The goal by Franzen certainly was a mistake, the need to score causing a breakdown that turned into a breakaway.
Bryzgalov has been as guilty as anyone in the trying-too-hard category.
The anchor to Phoenix’s defence-first system, he has a 4.00 goals-against average in the series, nearly double his regular-season mark, and has given up a couple of soft goals as his confidence has taken a bit of a hit.
“We’ve got to relax a little bit and just go give every drop of energy we have, but it’s got to be constructive, smart energy, not overplaying energy,” he said. “We just have to find ways to win.”
The Coyotes are familiar with adversity. They’ve spent the past two seasons playing while wondering who their owner would be, whether they’d get to stay in the desert or head back to Winnipeg or some other place. Phoenix shrugged off the uncertainty and made the playoffs each season despite the distractions.
Now, with the season on the line, the future getting darker seemingly by the day, Phoenix is facing the ultimate dig-down moment.
“I always bet on us,” Coyotes captain Shane Doan said. “We’ve responded as well as we always could when we’re in a situation where it seems you didn’t have any help. You’ve got to count on that. We’ve done it over and over again, no matter what the situation is. We’ve always found ways to do something when we’ve really needed it, and we really need it.”