|Coyotes become first-time conference finalists|
|Written by Andrew Knoll|
|Tuesday, 08 May 2012 04:29|
The Western Conference will be decided by a team with a modest history. It will either be the Phoenix Coyotes or the Los Angeles Kings, teams that appear to have several similarities.
Scoot over Original Six, either the Kings or Coyotes are headed to the Stanley Cup Final to write glorious chapters in their own modest histories.
The Coyotes advanced to the first conference finals in franchise history Monday while the Kings accomplished that feat Sunday for the second time since they entered the league in 1967.
Phoenix edged the Predators 2-1 on Monday, staving off a late rally as Mike Smith stopped 32 of 33 shots, the penalty kill went a perfect 4-for-4 and Martin Hanzal notched the game-winner.
The franchise had not won a playoff series in Phoenix prior to this year.
When they were the original Winnipeg Jets, they had tremendous regular-season success but seldom got past Alberta titans Calgary and Edmonton, winning just one series against the Flames in 1987.
“It’s been hard being a Phoenix Coyotes fan for a few years,” captain Shane Doan told NBC Sports Network.
Doan has been a career Coyote, playing with the franchise seemingly since the WHA-NHL merger. Colin Wilson scored with 5:59 to play, sending the Predators on in waves. Smith stood tall, enabling the offensive support he received in the second period from Hanzal and Derek Morris to secure the victory.
Phoenix ascended from 12th place in the Western Conference to snag the No. 3 seed. A huge winning streak in February and three straight shutouts down the stretch from Smith catapulted them to the top of a competitive Pacific Division.
“We won 11 in a row and you could just feel everyone start to believe, like, ‘Hey, we can beat anybody, we’re confident, we’re a good team’ and it just built from there,” Doan told NBC.
The Coyotes not only had a historic night on the ice, but they also received the most encouraging news in months that their club may stay put in the desert.
The league-run Coyotes may soon have new ownership in the form of Greg Jamison, the former CEO of the San Jose Sharks.
“We have a group that cares deeply about the National Hockey league, they care deeply about hockey, they care deeply about youth hockey and they look forward to being a part of this team,” Jamison told reporters.
While the players have focused on executing coach Dave Tippett’s system and battling through a second half that saw four different teams lead their division, they have not been oblivious to the broader struggle.
“This organization, this means a lot to them right now to get to this level,” said leading scorer Ray Whitney, who turns 40 today, to NBC. “We don’t talk a whole lot about it but obviously when you’re dealing with the sale of a hockey club that is having success at the time, I’m sure it makes things a little bit easier.”
Anchored by their veterans, Phoenix has also gotten serious mileage out of youngsters Mikkel Boedker, who stepped onto the second line for the suspended Raffi Torres, and Oliver Ekman-Larsson, who has become one of their ice time leaders.
“We’ve had contributions from some key people at the key times this season," Whitney told NBC. "That’s what you’re going to need. The L.A. Kings will probably say the same thing. They were not playing their best hockey throughout most of the season but they got in and now look at them. They’re the team that we all thought they were going to be at the start of the season.”
Many observers around the league think the Coyotes and Kings, who will meet in the Western Conference Finals after splitting their season series, have more than a team-wide commitment in common.
“I think the other lesson for all of us is what’s happening in Phoenix. That group back there on defense was so hard on us, we didn’t want to go anywhere near the net,” said one Western Conference coach, who also said the Kings accomplished similar things with their defense corps.
“[Michal] Rozsival, I’ve never seen him play like this, [Rusty] Klesla and these guys, they’re playing mean and hard. That’s the way teams are going to start building, getting back to those nasty guys who play on the back end.”
Both teams also have scorching hot goalies, Smith for Phoenix and Vezina Finalist Jonathan Quick for Los Angeles. Quick leads a club filled with playoff and Olympic experience. Yet the Kings, like the Coyotes, do not have the most riveting memoir, lacking playoff success despite being an Expansion Six franchise. Their sweep of the St. Louis Blues was the first in franchise history. Their only other notable playoff run was in 1993 when Wayne Gretzky led them to a Finals loss against Montreal.
The Kings became the first eighth seed to beat the top seed and the second seed.
Their head coach, Darryl Sutter, was at the helm of the only club to beat the top three seeds in a conference when his 2004 Flames took down the 3rd, 2nd and top seeds in succession before losing to Tampa Bay in the Finals.
Los Angeles is now tasked with accomplishing that feat in reverse order, having beaten top-seeded Vancouver, second-place St Louis and, now, facing third-seeded Phoenix. Such a run might supplant the Gretzky years and 1982’s “Miracle on Manchester” as the finest stanza in the less-than-epic poem that has been their franchise history.
"It's nice to be involved with a tradition, that's a great thing," Kings general manager Dean Lombardi said. "It's pretty neat to be a pioneer, too, and that's the way we've got to look at it."
Rangers 3, Capitals 2 OT
The New York Rangers pulled out a 3-2 win over the Washington Capitals, seizing a 3-2 series lead with their second overtime triumph.
Brad Richards scored with seven seconds left in regulation and Marc Staal capped off the win 1:35 into overtime.
Both goals came on the power play after Game-7 hero Joel Ward took a double-minor penalty for high-sticking with 21 seconds left in regulation.
“It’s a kick in the gut when you lose it, because it happens so quickly, and it’s pretty exciting when you win it because it happens so quickly,” Rangers coach John Tortorella told reporters.
Key faceoff losses by Jay Beagle and Matt Hendricks, who had dominated in the circle, contributed to Washington’s undoing as well.
The Caps have literally played 98% of their postseason tied or in a one-goal game. Their methodical pace was tested at times by the Rangers, who extended their forecheck and battled more aggressively along the Washington end wall in an effort to control possession and tempo.
Tortorella emphasized how critical it was to maintain that striking distance for both teams. He cited the Capitals effort to avoid a two-goal deficit after Anton Stralman opened the scoring for the Rangers as well as his clubs effort not to let the game slip away after John Carlson made it 2-1 Washington.
Brooks Laich also scored for Washington.
|Last Updated on Tuesday, 08 May 2012 13:49|