GLENDALE, Ariz. — You’ve probably heard that vomiting makes dogs feel better. Now you have proof.
Coach Dave Tippett estimated that five or six Coyotes were throwing up and questionable before Thursday’s crucial game (aren’t they all?) against the Red Wings at Jobing.com Arena, including expected starting goaltender Jason LaBarbera and defenseman David Schlemko.
“That’s the first game I think I’ve ever coached with two buckets beside me right on the bench,” Tippett said. “I’m amazed that TV didn’t pick that up.”
What the cameras did catch were 20 minutes of the finest hockey Phoenix has played this season when it rallied from a 1-0 deficit to score three times in the second period of a 4-2 win. In practical terms, the win pulled the Coyotes within two points of eighth place and the final playoff spot in the Western Conference standings. But in metaphorical terms, maybe Thursday’s pregame puking helped purge the sickness from a locker room stung by a series of trade-deadline departures.
When the Coyotes found out that Raffi Torres, Matthew Lombardi and Steve Sullivan had all been dealt Wednesday without any players coming back to help the immediate roster, the mood was somber.
“It’s never good. No one’s ever happy when you lose friends or teammates,” said captain Shane Doan, who scored the crucial third goal on a breakaway after a stretch pass from Keith Yandle and a touch feed from Martin Hanzal. “I don’t think anyone felt like we were giving up, but it wasn’t what any of the players wanted.”
Aside from a pregame scene straight out of the cholera years, Phoenix went into Thursday’s must-win game with a lineup that looked more like Portland West’s. Chad Johnson started in goal after finding out he would serve such duty at 1 p.m. Call-up Chris Conner, who makes Tippett look tall, was in the lineup. So was Chris Brown, not to mention Rob Klinkhammer and Michael Stone.
“We had a line going,” said Stone, noting that Brown and Conner flew in from Boston in the wee hours of Thursday morning.
The kids were all right, and they infused a sagging group of veterans with energy. Stone scored nearly two minutes into the second period to pull the Coyotes even. About six minutes later, Conner ripped a shot from the right wing past goalie Jimmy Howard’s stick for a 2-1 lead, and Doan completed the second-period onslaught at 16:01.
Detroit pulled within one on a power play late in the game, but Hanzal iced it with an empty-net goal to complete what Tippett called “one of the more amazing wins” he’s been around in a regular season.
The Coyotes even got some help from other teams when Vancouver beat Edmonton and Columbus beat Nashville. About the only thing that went wrong was St. Louis’ rally to beat Chicago in a shootout and keep the Coyotes from drawing even closer in the playoff chase.
“The new guys I had no worries about,” Tippett said. “You knew those guys were going to play, no matter what. They were getting the opportunity.”
The realist would note that the Coyotes still have a long road to climb to the playoffs. St. Louis has two games in hand, Nashville and Edmonton have home-heavy schedules and, after Saturday, Phoenix plays seven of its final 10 games on the road.
But with prospective buyer George Gosbee in attendance and talk that an ownership announcement could be coming soon for this long leader-less franchise, this was a night for optimism and hope.
“It’s a real credit to the leadership in our room and how much those guys care about the organization doing well,” said Tippett of his players’ ability to put the deadline deals behind them. “It starts with Shane, but it’s Yandle, it’s Hanzal, it’s (Derek) Morris, it’s (Radim) Vrbata.
“It’s hard to take three veteran players out of your lineup. It’s a tough day all around. But for them to regroup and make sure that we were focused for tonight speaks volumes about their leadership.”