GLENDALE, Ariz. — The only thing missing Thursday at Jobing.com Arena was a Dave Tippett bobblehead doll. Other than that, the remade Phoenix Coyotes staged a nearly flawless performance, from the ownership group right on down to rookie wing Lucas Lessio.
White T-shirts with the team’s new slogan, “Hungrier Than Ever,” greeted fans as they took their seats, making this an unofficial white out.
Owners Anthony LeBlanc and George Gosbee were rarely in their suite due to an endless parade of radio, television and social obligations.
A montage of old Coyotes clips preceded the player, staff and ownership introductions.
Mike Smith was both an effective goaltender and a dramatic showman, making two belly-slop saves and lying for an extended moment under a fallen net, a scene of which he quipped: “I was saying hi to the camera.”
The Coyotes carried the play over the final 35 minutes, Radim Vrbata sent an early message to general manager Don Maloney about that stalled contract extension with a three-goal night, and the Coyotes delivered the perfect crescendo to a successful offseason with a 4-1 win over the New York Rangers in the season opener.
“When the ownership group went on the ice, the crowd was electric, and we just fed off of it,” Vrbata said. “That’s what everybody was waiting for last year — the last four years. Fans liked it, and we liked it on the bench.”
The festive atmosphere was also noticed by the NHL bigwigs up in the suites.
“It’s what we expected, it’s what we believed would be the case, and it’s very gratifying to see the community response,” NHL commissioner Gary Bettman said. “I’ve always believed that there was a good strong fan base here, we knew that they had a good group of players and that Don Maloney and Dave Tippett were doing the right things. They just needed ownership.”
Before we get too far ahead of ourselves, it’s important to remember that this was just one game. The Coyotes will embark on a five-game, coast-to-coast road trip this weekend where we’ll find out a whole lot more about this promising, but still unproven group.
There were welcome signs from the power play, center Mike Ribeiro and a quickly maturing blue line corps that stymied New York’s breakout with timely pinches, while fueling the Coyotes’ with quick outlet passes.
But the guts of this game, to borrow a Tippet phrase, were still signature Coyotes, and that is what must continue.
“I don’t think we’re going to reinvent the wheel now that we have ownership,” said Smith, who made 23 saves. “In order for this team to win, we have to play a certain way, and we did that tonight.”
There are still many questions to be answered, but all that will sort itself out soon enough when the team, the owners and the fans settle into this season. For one night, it was fun to imagine the possibilities in what is starting to feel like a legitimate NHL city.
“It was positive. Everything was positive, and that’s a different feeling,” captain Shane Doan said. “You’re not going out there apologizing; you’re just going out there to play.
“It was huge for us to win this for ourselves and for our fans. Now if we can find a way to get the next one, maybe we can get something going here.”