GLENDALE, Ariz. – The confidence could have, maybe should have been down after Phoenix gave up a goal in the closing seconds of regulation. Instead, the players looked around the room during intermission, called for someone to become a hero.
A player who hadn’t scored in more than two months did just that—the perfect result for an everyone-chips-in team like the Coyotes.
Martin Hanzal scored 9:29 into overtime for his first goal since Feb. 6 and the Phoenix Coyotes rallied after losing the lead with 14 seconds left to open the playoffs with a 3-2 win over the Chicago Blackhawks on Thursday night.
“When you’re at that moment and score the goal, it’s just a great feeling,” Hanzal said after notching the winner in his first overtime playoff game.
Phoenix had a shaky start, losing leading goal scorer Radim Vrbata to an injury on his first shift, then gave up a tough-angle goal to Jonathan Toews a few minutes later in his first game back from a concussion.
The Coyotes gathered themselves, got back to their close-to-the-vest style and had a 2-1 lead after Taylor Pyatt and Antoine Vermette scored in the second period.
Nearly perfect when leading after two periods during the regular season—33-1—Phoenix appeared to have the opening game of the best-of-seven series locked up after goalie Mike Smith stopped two shots without his stick during a power play in the third period.
But the Blackhawks roared back in the closing seconds of regulation, getting a couple of good chances after goalie Corey Crawford left the ice for an extra attacker.
One of those was a redirected shot by Toews that hit the post and went right to defenceman Brent Seabrook, who slipped the puck in behind Smith with 14.2 seconds left to send the game to overtime.
After the intermission pep talk and some good chances by both teams in overtime, Hanzal gave the Coyotes a little redemption by barely nicking a shot by Adrian Aucoin for a redirected goal that set off a wild celebration by the all-in-white fans at Jobing.Com Arena.
Game 2 is Saturday night in Arizona.
“You’re not going to get many opportunities to play overtime in the playoffs,” Coyotes captain Shane Doan said. “I’m not saying that’s the way you want to go into it, but once you’re there, you’ve got to enjoy it and that’s what we did.”
The Blackhawks got off to a flying start, taking advantage of the Coyotes’ first-playoff-game jitters to set up Toews’ goal. Chicago rallied after going flat as Phoenix took the lead in the second period and managed to send the game to overtime on Seabrook’s goal.
In overtime, the Blackhawks had some decent chances turned back by Smith, who had 43 saves, and spent the last part of the extra period icing the puck after the Coyotes went on long shifts in their zone.
“The big goal for our team that tied it up at the end gave us a chance in overtime, but it came down to we just got stuck in our own zone too many times in that overtime period and gave up too many chances,” Toews said.
Phoenix reached the apex of its run in the desert this season, earning its first division title in 33 years as an NHL franchise.
Without an owner for the third straight season and no true star players, the Coyotes got by on grit and great goaltending from Smith, winning their final five games to take the Pacific Division crown. A nice accomplishment, though the carrot for the players was the home-ice advantage that came with it.
For a team that hadn’t won a playoff series since 1987—nine years before they moved from Winnipeg to Arizona—they were happy for any advantage they could get.
They were going to need it against Chicago.
The Blackhawks are fast, skilled and experienced, two years removed from winning the Stanley Cup. They finished with two more wins and four more points than the Coyotes, who earned home ice by winning their division.
Chicago also has two of best lines in hockey and the top one got a big boost for Game 1 with the return of Toews. The Blackhawks’ captain missed the final 22 games of the regular season with a concussion and just returned to practice on Monday.
He didn’t take long to let the Coyotes know he was feeling good, squeezing a backhander past Smith from a tough angle just over 4 minutes into the game—just what the Blackhawks wanted to quiet Phoenix’s raucous crowd.
The Coyotes fought back after those early-game jitters, though, and players from both teams had to be separated in the closing seconds after Hanzal and Chicago’s Bryan Bickell were called for roughing penalties.
Phoenix kept up the feistiness to open the second period and broke through 7 1/2 minutes in, when Pyatt lifted a shot past Corey Crawford after a nifty backhand feed by Daymond Langkow. The Coyotes set up the goal by wearing the Blackhawks down, repeatedly keeping the puck in the zone to create an exceptionally long shift, though Chicago’s coaches thought Phoenix had too many men on the ice before it went in.
Vermette put Phoenix up 2-1 late in the period, one-timing a pass from Raffi Torres so hard that it bounced out of the net and Crawford wasn’t sure if it went in.
The Blackhawks fought back to tie it, but again were hurt by Phoenix’s ability to keep the puck in their zone for long stretches.
“We were standing still with the puck,” Blackhawks coach Joel Quenneville said of the second period. “We didn’t advance it and had some long shifts in our end and had a tired group sometimes. We lost some momentum in that period, but I thought we got it back in the third and in overtime lost it again with the icings.”
With a day between games, the Blackhawks need to find it again or they’ll face an 0-2 hole when the series heads back to Chicago.
NOTES: The Coyotes and Blackhawks are meeting for the first time in the playoffs. … Phoenix has killed off 29 straight penalties, dating to the regular season. … Toews’ goal was his 16th career in the playoffs. … Chicago’s Patrick Kane had two assists and has 50 career playoff points, moving him into 15th in Blackhawks history.