Forty. To some it represents the halfway point in life; the start of the back nine. To Ray Whitney, who hit the mark Tuesday, it’s just a number. It has no meaning.
“None,” he said with a quick shake of the head that suggested we should move on to the next topic.
Age hasn’t impacted Whitney’s play this season. He led the Coyotes with 77 points during the regular season, and he has six points thus far in the postseason.
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But Coyotes captain Shane Doan suspects there’s a deeper reason Whitney is loath to talk about his milestone birthday that came a day after the team advanced to the Western Conference finals for the first time in franchise history.
“I think Whitney’s a lot older than 40,” Doan said with a grin.
Again, not that it would’ve mattered this season, as Whitney and a handful of graying players like Nicklas Lidstrom, Martin Brodeur and Teemu Selanne pushed the NHL’s age ceiling a little bit higher.
“I played into my early 30s, and I was probably under contract five more years than I should have been,” Coyotes general manager Don Maloney said, laughing. “I think with Ray, it’s his mindset that’s the secret. He still has the heart of a 25-year-old player.
“He’s not the quickest and he’s certainly not the biggest, but when it comes down to a puck battle in a tight area, he’s as good as anyone because he’s just so clever and tenacious.”
While most of the Coyotes lack deep playoff experience, Monday’s 2-1 win over Nashville cemented Whitney’s third trip to the conference finals. That would be a teaching point for some veterans, but that’s not his style.
As the playoffs progress, he seems to talk less and less, slipping quietly into the hallway outside the locker room and doing his best to dodge reporters. It’s not that he’s uncomfortable in front of a camera or a tape recorder. You won’t find a better quote or a more analytical mind on the team.
Anybody who heard his mesmerizingly informative interview in Chicago regarding the Raffi Torres suspension knows this.
“He’s really sharp and perceptive because he’s seen so many things,” Maloney said.
The lesson Whitney handed his teammates after Monday’s series-clinching win was far less nuanced.
“We really haven’t accomplished anything yet,” he said. “I’m sure for Doaner and a lot of people in this organization, it means a lot more than it does to me at this point because they haven’t tasted this.
“But you have to be careful. You get halfway and you think the first two have been tough, but it’s only going to get harder. That’s the only thing I can dad to the discussion.”
For proof, Whitney notes that his Carolina Hurricanes needed seven games to win the Eastern Conference finals and the Stanley Cup finals in 2006.
In Game 7 of the conference finals, the Hurricanes rallied with three goals in the third period to beat Buffalo 4-2. In the Cup Finals, Carolina built a 3-1 series lead, only to watch Edmonton tie the series.
“You think Chicago and Nashville were tough?” Whitney said. “Just wait. Every series gets progressively harder.”
Maloney is convinced Whitney’s experience will play a greater role as the playoffs roll on.
“He’s really the perfect leader for this club because he’s always been sort of an underdog because of his size,” Maloney said. “To play and win a Cup and understand the commitment it takes — it’s invaluable to an organization that has had so little success in the playoffs.”
Win or lose, this is Whitney’s last season under contract in Phoenix. Barring a lockout, he would like to keep playing.
“I don’t see Ray being a guy who’s going to chase the highest bidder or contract,” Maloney said. “There are a couple places he’ll look at that make sense for him, and we’re certainly one of them.”
But contracts are a topic Whitney won’t broach in detail. Not now — not when this could be his last chance to chase the Stanley Cup.
“You want to get as far as you can,” he said. “It’s pretty simple. You realize you don’t have too many more cracks at it.”