GLENDALE, Ariz. – Phoenix’s players spread across the ice like a fishing net, the forwards causing the tension up front, the defencemen pinching in for support just inside the blue line.
Leaving no room to escape, the Coyotes picked off pucks, sent them back in, kept the Chicago Blackhawks on the ice for shifts that seemed to go on forever.
It wasn’t constant pressure, it just came at the right times—enough to give Phoenix a 3-2 overtime win over the Blackhawks on Thursday night and a 1-0 lead in the best-of-seven series.
“I always go back to the icing rule put into place after the lockout—it’s a factor,” Coyotes coach Dave Tippett said Friday. “If you can get them pinned in there … you can grab momentum in a game.”
The first playoff series between Chicago and Phoenix will be decided by which team can dictate the style of play. The Blackhawks like to soar around the ice, score in bunches. The Coyotes have more of a pack mentality, playing fundamentally sound in their own zone and grinding their opponent down.
Phoenix won the war of wills in Game 1 by getting the game down to its tempo at the key moments.
Shaking off a jittery start in front of a raucous, everyone-in-white crowd, the Coyotes used their grittiness to keep Chicago stuck in its own zone for an exceptionally long shift that led to the first of their two goals in the second period.
After giving up what could have been a debilitating goal in the closing seconds of regulation, Phoenix had Chicago reeling again in overtime, putting so much pressure on the Blackhawks that they had to repeatedly ice the puck just to come up for a breath.
Their opponent worn down, the Coyotes won it 9:29 into overtime, when Martin Hanzal tipped a shot by Adrian Aucoin that skittered by Chicago goalie Corey Crawford and got the hometown crowd howling.
“Most teams kind of play that way now where if you can have five-man pressure, you just seem to cover every outlet pass,” Aucoin said. “When you’re a D-man, you never really want to have a turnover in your own zone, so you ice or try to get out somehow or you skate it out. Our team is tenacious in a lot of those shifts where we just kept it in, and obviously that creates a lot of momentum.”
Chicago had it early in the game and late in regulation.
Shaking off some big hits by Phoenix and the crowd noise, the Blackhawks were loose and free in the opening minutes, creating some long shifts in Phoenix’s zone and good scoring chances. The pressure led to a goal by captain Jonathan Toews 4 minutes into the game in his return after missing 22 games with a concussion.
Trailing 2-1, Chicago again ramped up its pressure in the closing seconds of regulation, leading to Brent Seabrook’s tying goal with 14.2 seconds left that sent the game to overtime.
The problem for the Blackhawks was sustaining it.
Despite losing leading goal scorer Radim Vrbata in the opening seconds—he’s day-to-day with an upper-body injury—Phoenix got back to its wear-you-down style, punishing the Blackhawks with big hits, limiting their open-ice chances.
The Coyotes tied the game midway through the second period with one of their keep-it-in-the-zone shifts, repeatedly sending the puck into Chicago’s end for a shift that lasted over a minute and resulted in Taylor Pyatt’s goal. Phoenix kept grinding the rest of the period and took the lead on Antoine Vermette’s counterattacking goal with just over 2 minutes left.
The Coyotes regrouped after Seabrook’s goal in the closing seconds and again ramped up the pressure on Chicago, leaving the Blackhawks with no alternative but to ice the puck over and over until Hanzal scored the game-winner.
“You’re praying the forwards dump it in deep so you can get off the ice,” Blackhawks defenceman Niklas Hjalmarsson said.
Part of it was the long change Chicago had in the second period and overtime.
Their bench at the opposite end of the ice from their goal, the Blackhawks repeatedly had trouble swapping out players in those two periods, leading to long shifts.
The Coyotes had the same long shift changes, but had the momentum going at those moments, able to keep the Blackhawks pinned in, the only escape to ice the puck to the other end. Even then it was only a brief respite; teams aren’t allowed to change after an icing call, so the cycle would start all over for the tired Blackhawks.
Phoenix also is a fundamentally sound team, so its players are rarely out of position, making it tough for opposing defencemen to find avenues to clear the puck. Faced with mounting pressure and few options, Chicago had numerous turnovers in its own zone, creating good chances for the Coyotes.
“That’s what it comes down to: keeping pucks out of our own end, not panicking … not turn the puck over,” Blackhawks defenceman Duncan Keith said.
The Blackhawks have one day to figure it out: Game 2 is Saturday in Arizona, where thousands more screaming fans and those pesky Coyotes are waiting.