GLENDALE, Ariz. – Steve Sullivan has murdered a dozen innocent sticks over the past six weeks, choking the life out of every feeble blade. But as his goal-less drought reached 14 games in reality and eternity in his mind, all the experiences of a 38-year-old NHL veteran were of no use.
“You don’t think you have as much time as you do, you’re trying to rush pucks,” Sullivan said. “You’re just not as confident as you usually are.”
Compounding Sullivan’s self-imposed pressure were the words of coach Dave Tippett, who made plain his displeasure with the play and production of his top two lines over the past few weeks. The Coyotes had been relying on their fourth line far too much for scoring, and that’s not a recipe for long-term success.
But with the Pacific Division-leading Ducks in town on Saturday for the first of a three-game, lockout-induced miniseries, Sullivan’s stick exhaled at the most opportune of times.
Sullivan corralled a loose puck in the slot with 6:29 left in the third period and batted a shot past Ducks goalie Viktor Fasth to force overtime, then scored the only goal of the shootout on a pure goal scorer’s goal, getting Fasth to open his five hole before ripping a low shot between the pads to give the Coyotes a much-needed 5-4 win at Jobing.com Arena. The loss was the first for Fasth in five shootouts.
“We really put the full-court press on in the third period,” Sullivan said. “We were just getting a lot of cycles going in deep and making them have to play a 200-foot game. It showed. We had a lot of scoring chances in that third period.”
Saturday’s game was as entertaining an outing as the Coyotes have had this season – on a night of entertaining games in the NHL – but it strayed far from the script Tippett’s teams normally follow.
Both teams had plenty of scoring chances in a wide-open affair, both goalies gave up questionable goals and both goalies redeemed themselves with spectacular saves.
“We stuck with the game,” said Tippett, whose club trailed 1-0, 3-2 and 4-3 before pulling it out. “I like the way we hung around and found a way to get two points.”
Phoenix hasn’t reached the halfway point of the season yet, so it’s probably unwise to write off the Pacific just yet, particularly with two more games in the next four days against these same Ducks. But Anaheim still leads the Coyotes by nine points so the greater good may be just playing themselves into playoff position. That won’t happen without production from the club’s top forwards, two of whom – Radim Vrbata and Martin Hanzal – are still out with injuries.
The Coyotes took a step in that direction with Sullivan’s night and two goals from Lauri Korpikoski, who broke an 11-game goal-less streak. That production helped offset Andrew Cogliano’s second career hat trick and second hat trick in two seasons against the Coyotes.
“It was a pretty sloppy game and probably not the way we want to play overall,” Korpikoski said. “It’s been a while since the last one so it was good to get that first one and then it started kind of bouncing my way.”
Sullivan is hoping that trend will hold true for him. Fair or not, he is viewed by most fans as the replacement for departed free agent Ray Whitney, who led the team with 77 points last season before signing with the Dallas Stars.
Sullivan got off to a good start with a hat trick against his favorite pin cushion, the Columbus Blue Jackets on Jan. 23, but his primary role had gone unfulfilled since a goal against San Jose the following night.
“I know how long it’s been since I scored a goal and that’s what I was brought here to do is try to help on the offensive side of the puck and it wasn’t going in so I felt a lot of pressure,” said Sullivan, who tried to keep that pressure from seeping into his game. “You make sure the rest of your game is solid. You’ve just got to make sure that you’re not hurting the hockey club.
“Obviously, you’re not contributing in that (offensive) aspect but you’ve got to make sure you’re making a contribution somewhere else.”
For a stretch, even that was in question, but Tippett insisted Sullivan has rid his game of any additional issues.
“Scorers like to score and they get frustrated when they don’t score,” Tippett said. “He hasn’t found the net as much as he’d like but he’s getting some chances and I like the way he’s played the last two or three games. He’s been around it. Hopefully, that’s a good sign of things to come.” Follow Craig Morgan on Twitter