GLENDALE, Ariz. – An hour before one of the biggest games in franchise history, the Phoenix Coyotes learned a deal was in place for a new owner, one they hoped would end three years of uncertainty.
They celebrated in typical fashion: grinding out another victory.
This one, though, will take them somewhere they’ve never been before: the Western Conference finals.
Relying again on their grit and the superb goaltending of Mike Smith, the Coyotes beat the Nashville Predators 2-1 on Monday night to earn their first trip to the conference finals in 33 years as an NHL franchise.
“It feels great right now, a lot of hard work,” Coyotes defenceman Keith Yandle said. “It’s been a battle the past few years, but it’s a lot of fun and we’re blessed to be where we are right now.”
The day started off with news the Coyotes and their fans had been anticipating for three years.
Speaking as players from both teams warmed up in the hallway, NHL commissioner Gary Bettman announced that a tentative deal had been reached to sell the Coyotes to former San Jose Sharks CEO Greg Jamison.
The Coyotes paid it no mind. They had spent the previous three seasons with the uncertainty hanging over them and had learned to keep their focus on the ice, not what happens off it.
Playing its usual counterpunching style, Phoenix withstood an early flurry by Nashville and followed with goals from Derek Morris and Martin Hanzal in the second period.
And, as usual, the Coyotes gave up a late goal to make it interesting, this one by Colin Wilson with just under 6 minutes left.
Phoenix has become accustomed to seat-of-their-pants victories, though, and they pulled out another one, nearly getting an empty-net goal by Smith before setting off a raucous celebration on the ice rink surrounded by desert.
Next up for the Coyotes are the Los Angeles Kings, the first No. 8 seed to knock off Nos. 1 and 2 in the same playoffs.
“We’ve learned a lot as a group who we are and every guy has contributed in the series and the playoffs,” said Smith, who stopped 32 shots. “It’s been different guys in different series and it’s been a big part of our success.”
Nashville, as it did all series, had plenty of good chances against Smith. Even forwards Alexander Radulov and Andrei Kostitsyn back from two-game suspensions, the Predators couldn’t find a way to capitalize, hitting the post at least three times and managing one goal despite outshooting the Coyotes 33-17.
The loss knocks Nashville out of the playoffs in the conference semifinals for the second straight season.
“They found a way to keep the puck out of the net,” Predators coach Barry Trotz said. “In the end, we had enough chances to win this series, but we didn’t win. We couldn’t bury anything past Smith.”
The Coyotes got some long-awaited good news before the game, when Bettman announced the league had a tentative deal to sell the team to Jamison.
There’s no official sale agreement yet and Jamison still needs to work out lease details with the city of Glendale, which could be a dicey proposition with conservative watchdog group the Goldwater Institute lurking. Still, after three years of waiting, the move toward ownership and staying in the desert took a big step.
It had already been a great season.
Relying on Smith and their protect-at-all-costs mentality, the unflashy Coyotes won their first division title as an NHL franchise and advanced to the second round of the playoffs for the first time in 25 years.
Phoenix moved within the brink of the conference finals for the first time by beating Nashville twice in the desert and again in Game 4 on Smith’s second shutout of the playoffs.
With Jobing.com Arena juiced and Bettman, not to mention their potential new boss in the house, the Coyotes played their pack-in-and-counter game the way they have all playoffs.
Nashville had the advantage early in a tight first period, Phoenix took it late, but neither scored.
The Coyotes broke through early in the second, when Pekka Rinne made a kick save on a breakaway by Shane Doan, but couldn’t stop Morris’ shot from the point after Phoenix reset.
The Predators tried to rally, turning up the pressure.
Instead of the tying goal, they hit the post three times—twice in one rapid-fire sequence—and had another shot blocked by diving Coyotes. Smith also made a snatching save on a wrister by Gabriel Bourque.
Phoenix then went back to its counterattacking ways, with Kyle Chipchura breaking out, holding, then setting up Hanzal’s wrister that Rinne couldn’t see with a defender in his way.
“That is kind of how the series went,” Predators defenceman Ryan Suter said. “We didn’t capitalize on their chances and they came back and it ended up in the back of our net.”
Up 2-0, the Coyotes packed it in, diving to block shots while giving the Predators only slivers of shooting lanes.
Wilson squeezed a puck through one of them with 5:59 left, flicking a pass from David Legwand past Smith, ending his scoreless streak of more than 160 minutes.
The Coyotes wouldn’t let them score again and Smith nearly ended it with a flourish, missing an empty-net by a few inches with 2 seconds left.
It didn’t matter at that point—the Coyotes were on their way to the conference finals, capping one of the biggest days in franchise history with another wipe-the-brow victory.
“Coyote ugly—that’s kind of been the motto here,” Smith said. “We just find a way to win.”
Notes: Doan played his 50th career playoff game. … The team that scored first won every game in the series. … Nashville went 0 for 4 on the power play. … Phoenix played without D Rostislav Klesla, who was suspended a game by the league for his Game 4 hit on Nashville forward Matt Halischuk.