LOS ANGELES — The Phoenix Coyotes have faced every challenge with steely resolve this season: ownership uncertainty, one of the NHL’s lowest payrolls, suspensions to key players and a March slump that threatened their playoff hopes.
With their backs against the wall on Thursday at Staples Center, the last obstacle they expected was a one-sided officiating crew.
Unfortunately for the team and the league, that’s what they got in a backbreaking 2-1 loss.
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Let’s be clear here: The Los Angeles Kings have been the better team in this Western Conference finals series. They have earned every ounce of this 3-0 lead because they have dominated the Coyotes in virtually every phase of the game, whether it’s puck possession, forechecking, defensive-zone coverage, scoring chances or poise.
If the Kings do not hand the city of Los Angeles its first Stanley Cup in June, it will be a shock.
But late in Thursday’s game, Coyotes coach Dave Tippett was caught on camera berating an official for a 5-1 Los Angeles power-play edge. That is too often the fallback position for losing teams that have lost perspective. In this case, he had a compelling argument.
“If I told you what I really thought, I think it would cost me a lot of money,” Tippett said in his postgame news conference. “The game is turning a little dishonest, and it’s embellishment by players because they know, when it’s done well, it’s very hard for the referees.”
At issue for several of the Coyotes in the locker room afterward were at least a pair of calls the Kings escaped that seemed to mirror penalties for which the Coyotes were whistled. For example, captain Shane Doan got a roughing call early in the first for smacking Kings forward Jarret Stoll in the face with his glove. A few minutes after he got out of the box, Doan absorbed a punch to the face with an official on the spot.
Defenseman Oliver Ekman-Larsson took a cross-check to the back midway through the third period — again with an official in position. Again, no call, but when Ekman-Larsson retaliated, he got a cross-checking penalty.
But what really irked Tippett, although he didn’t name them specifically, were a perceived dive by Kings star Dustin Brown and a couple of other similar plays, including Doan’s initial penalty.
“If you fall down near the boards or you drop your stick or you throw your head back, you’re putting the referee in a very tough situation,” Tippett said. “It makes the game dishonest, but in actual fact, to make it work to your favor, you’ve got to do it. I mean, you’ve got to do it. If everybody else is doing it, you’d better do it, too.
“We saw more than one penalty out there — for us and against us — that I thought were plays where there was embellishment. It’s too bad that it has to go that way. It’s too bad that you get to this point of the season where that becomes a factor, but it’s a reality of our game right now.”
Critics will note that the Coyotes have benefited from a few of those calls this postseason, most notably a few embellishments by goalie Mike Smith. Unless you believe in an honorable code of hockey, you might also say those embellishments are wise.
Anything to get an edge, right?
But on Thursday, a disparity in calls helped doom what had been the Coyotes’ best effort of this series. They outshot the Kings 11-8 in the first period — a notable effort in what has been a one-sided series.
They finally broke through early in the second period on Daymond Langkow’s first playoff goal since April 20, 2008, to grab their first lead of the series.
The Kings answered just two minutes and seven seconds later to send the game to the final period tied at 1-1. They applied steady pressure in the first few minutes of the third period and climbed on top on rookie Dwight King’s fifth goal of the postseason, which came on a delayed penalty on the Coyotes.
“He’s clutch,” Kings defenseman Matt Greene said. “He’s been scoring some good goals for us, and he continues to do it.”
Any hope the Coyotes had of answering died in an avalanche of penalties. In that season-determining period, they were short-handed three times. The Kings were not short-handed once.
And now the Coyotes must stew for two days in their hotel rooms before taking the ice for what seems like the inevitable: an series loss that will leave a bitter taste at the end of this remarkable season.
Phoenix was saying all the right things afterward, all the predictable things. But honestly, what else is there to say?
“We’ve got nothing to lose,” defenseman Keith Yandle said of the challenge of overcoming a 3-0 series deficit. “It’s not like it’s never been done before. We’re a resilient group. We can battle back and play hard.”