GLENDALE, Ariz. – The Phoenix Coyotes survived stretches of playing on their heels in the playoffs’ first two rounds, absorbing everything the opponent threw at them before counterpunching with a winning goal.
Against the Los Angeles Kings, they quickly learned that method won’t work.
More skilled and equally tenacious as Phoenix, the Kings hit the Coyotes hard and kept coming in Game 1 of the Western Conference finals, rolling to a 4-2 win Sunday night.
With Game 2 Tuesday night in the desert, the Coyotes have a short turnaround to figure out a way to stop this Los Angeles juggernaut or it could end up being a short series.
“We know we need to be better,” Coyotes forward Boyd Gordon said Monday after practice. “They’re a very good team, they work hard, they compete and they battle. If we come out like we did in Game 1, we’ll be in big trouble.”
The Kings have been doing this all playoffs.
The West’s last team to get in, Los Angeles has arguably been the NHL’s best team in the playoffs, its combination of grit, skill and superb goaltending overwhelming opponents.
The Kings knocked off No. 1 seed Vancouver in five games, swept second-seeded St. Louis in the second round and dominated Phoenix in the opener of the conference finals.
With a week off since beating the Blues, Los Angeles picked up where it left off instead of showing any signs of rust, attacking the Coyotes from the opening faceoff. The Kings outshot Phoenix 17-4 in the first period, overcame two miscues by usually steady goalie Jonathan Quick and didn’t give the Coyotes much of a chance to fight back after Dustin Brown scored early in the third period.
Dwight King sealed it with his second goal of the night on an empty net, sending Los Angeles to its sixth straight road playoff victory—one short of the NHL record for one post-season—and another surge along its wave of momentum.
These Kings are on such a roll they don’t care who’s on the ice against them; just line up and go after the players in front of you, whoever they are.
“We know how we play and don’t worry about the matchups,” Kings centre Jarret Stoll said. “We know all four lines can play, all four centermen can play in every situation. When you have that, that’s pretty important to the team.”
Before Sunday night, the Coyotes had been able to snatch away wins when they were outplayed in the post-season.
They packed in against Chicago’s skilled lines in the opening series, withstanding the Blackhawks’ numerous flurries before pulling a tight series that went to overtime five of the six games. Phoenix played a similar rope-a-dope style at times against Nashville, winning that series in five games.
The Coyotes do have experience in bouncing back from a poor series opener.
Against the Predators, they allowed 42 shots and were dominated for most of the third period and at times in overtime before Ray Whitney scored for an improbable win.
The big difference in this case is the outcome. Phoenix couldn’t snatch a victory away from the confident Kings and finds itself trailing in a series for the first time this season.
“We’ve been disappointed in the way we played some other games,” Coyotes coach Dave Tippett said. “But, like I said before, we’ve been able to find a way to kind of scratch and claw our way out of it. Last night, we didn’t get the result we wanted.”
One reason was the Kings’ top line of Brown, Anze Kopitar and Justin Williams.
The trio has given teams fits all post-season, combining for 11 goals and 17 assists the first two series. They were an unstoppable force against Phoenix, forcing Tippett to juggle his lineup in an attempt to find someone who could stop them.
No one really did.
The line combined for two goals and two assists, with Brown scoring what ended up being the winning goal on a mini breakaway after a stretch pass from Slava Voynov in the third period. They were seemingly everywhere and controlled the puck most of their time on the ice together, creating a huge matchup problem for the Coyotes.
“I’m not sure what they’re going to try to do to stop us,” Brown said. “It’s one of those things where they’re going to make adjustments. It’s up to us as players to make adjustments in games to be effective and have an impact on Game 2.”
More than the technical adjustments, the Coyotes need a change in attitude, get back to their grinding ways.
A team without any true stars, Phoenix relies on a lunch-pail approach, getting to the loose pucks first, winning individual battles all over the ice.
The Coyotes didn’t do that against Los Angeles in Game 1.
They came out flat and the Kings jumped on them at the start, by far the more aggressive team. Derek Morris scored late in the period on a shot from the centre line, but that was more of a fluke than something Phoenix can expect to happen on a regular basis.
The Coyotes did use their grittiness to score their second goal—Mikkel Boedker in front after Antoine Vermette won a battle behind the goal—but there were far too few instances like that in the opener.
If Phoenix doesn’t change that, what they do technically won’t matter.
“First and foremost, if you’re not willing to jump in and win a few more one-on-one battles, the tactical stuff you may as well throw it out the window,” Tippett said.
Especially against a team like the Kings.