Thanks to Smith, Coyotes’ playoff drought over
Shane Doan glided a stride back from the celebratory pack
surrounding goalie Mike Smith. With a smile that was half wonder, half
wondering, he glanced up at the scoreboard to double-check that what he was
seeing was real.
It was, and since Al Michaels is an Arizona State University graduate, we feel
comfortable borrowing his memorable line: Do you believe in miracles?
Fifteen seasons of Phoenix futility are over; 25 years of franchise futility,
Discussions of ownership uncertainty and talks of talent deficits have been
Hockey in the Valley is alive and well because a little team that had so many
reasons to stay down just kept getting up off the mat.
This wasn’t a textbook playoff series win. It was more like rope-a-dope, with
the Coyotes absorbing punch after punch from the skill-laden Chicago Blackhawks
but refusing to wilt, thanks mostly to their superhuman goalie.
When the raucous United Center crowd had finally filed quietly out of the
building into the chilly Chicago night, the scoreboard read 4-0 Coyotes, the
series score read 4-2 and the Phoenix locker room was flowing with
“It’s like the hockey gods were shining down on us and were going to allow us
to win tonight,” coach Dave Tippett said in his postgame interview Monday night
with FOX Sports Arizona.
No player deserved that favorable turn of fate more than Doan. For 16 seasons,
he’s toiled in near-anonymity, doing whatever he could in the community and on
the ice to sell a foreign product to a skeptical and fickle city.
“He’s just the ultimate leader for us,” Tippett said.
Doan had never won a playoff series — not one. He had lost three times in a
Game 7. He had seen four series leads evaporate, and he went through an
eight-year stretch with no postseason at all.
“Everyone’s dream who plays in the NHL is to play for the Stanley Cup,” Doan
told reporters after the game. “This is one step closer, but one I’ve never
There aren’t enough bouquets to go around for this series’ stars, but we’ll
hand out a few anyway.
One for wing Gilbert Brulé, who was claimed off re-entry waivers from Edmonton
at midseason yet finished with more goals in this series than Patrick Sharp and
Patrick Kane combined.
One for center Antoine Vermette, the Coyotes’ lone trade-deadline acquisition,
who led the team with four goals in this series, making general manager Don
Maloney look like, well, what he is: a genius.
One for forward Mikkel Boedker, whose inability to finish never deterred him
from working, which finally paid off in to back-to-back game-winning overtime
goals in Games 3 and 4.
One for rugged forward Kyle Chipchura, who spent eight games of the season with
Portland of the AHL but filled in admirably when center Marty Hanzal missed
nearly four games of this series, then recorded a goal and an assist in Monday
night’s clinching win.
One for Hanzal, who came back on what we’re guessing is still a gimpy leg yet
still parked his exceedingly large frame in front of Blackhawks goalie Corey
Crawford to set up the Coyotes’ first goal.
One each for defenseman Derek Morris and center Boyd “Bones” Gordon for
blocking the kinds of shots that Hakeem Olajuwon never would have.
One for defenseman Rusty Klesla for coming back in the second period after
sustaining a nasty gash above the eye early in the game.
One for forwards Radim Vrbata and Lauri Korpikoski for playing through injuries
they never would admit.
One for defenseman Oliver Ekman-Larsson, whose second-period goal altered the
complexion of the game. At 20 years old, he still can’t drink legally, but
we’re guessing he had a few sips of champagne in the locker room and on the
joyous plane ride home.
One for Doan, just to say thanks.
One for Ray Whitney in hopes that it will keep him here a few more years.
One for Tippett, who never met an excuse he liked.
And a whole florist shop for Smith, who carried this team to uncharted
territory like no Coyotes goalie before him ever could.
“Mike Smith had a special game,” Blackhawks coach Joel Quenneville gushed to
the media after Smith’s 39-save effort. “You come out of that first period
(scoreless) — that was a moral victory for them.”
Smith couldn’t have picked a better time to record the first postseason road
shutout in franchise history. He robbed Brendan Morrison in the first period,
then stole Morrison’s soul in the second on a post-to-post effort.
He was under siege the entire night — the entire series — but he never looked
like the career backup nobody else wanted. He looked like the guy every team
wishes it had: a strong Vezina Trophy candidate who may finally be catching the
eye of national pundits with his world-class play.
“Smitty was as good as I’ve ever seen a goalie,” Doan said.
He had to be. Chicago peppered him with 16 shots in the first period and 12 in
the second while Phoenix managed just eight through two periods.
“It’s not like we didn’t try. They’re just a really good hockey team. They gave
us everything we could handle,” said Smith, who stuck to a simple plan between
periods. “I took a couple deep breaths.”
Now, the Valley can do the same. The wait is over: The Coyotes have won a
playoff series. They are headed to the second round, where they’ll have
home-ice advantage against the surging and talented Nashville Predators.
You can bet Phoenix will be installed as an underdog in this series. But that
role is as comfortable as a well-worn T-shirt to this franchise.
“It’s a very moving moment for our group,” Tippett said. “But just because we
got to this point doesn’t mean we’re stopping.”