CHICAGO -- Needing a win to save their season, the Chicago Blackhawks peppered Phoenix Coyotes goalie Mike Smith with 28 shots on Monday night through the first 40 minutes at United Center.
But one of the biggest surprises of the season just kept right on surprising.
Smith's remarkable campaign will continue into the Western Conference Semifinals after he stopped all 39 shots he faced in a convincing 4-0 victory to clinch this Western Conference Quarterfinal series in six games.
Next up will be the Nashville Predators, who beat the Detroit Red Wings in their opening series in a similar fashion – riding a hot goalie and blocking a ton of shots.
"We kind of threw a 'Rope-a-Dope' at them like Muhammad Ali a little bit, but they were a great team and it was a fun series," said Coyotes defenseman Keith Yandle, who finished with an assist on the eventual game-winning goal scored by Oliver Ekman-Larsson in the second period. "We battled the whole time and to beat those guys is a huge accomplishment for us."
Ekman-Larsson, Gilbert Brule, Antoine Vermette and Kyle Chipchura scored the goals for the Coyotes -- who clinched their first postseason series win since moving from Winnipeg in 1996 and the franchise's first since 1987, when the Jets beat Calgary in the Smythe Division Semifinals.
"That's a long time," Yandle said. "I was born in , so that's a long time when you think about it."
Coyotes captain Shane Doan has thought about it, quite a bit actually, and wholeheartedly agreed. Doan is the last remaining player from when this franchise played in Winnipeg and hadn't ever been a part of a winning locker room in the Stanley Cup Playoffs as a Coyote until Monday night.
"It's a relief, because you just want to get a chance to do something in the playoffs and make some noise," said Doan, who tallied three of his team's 37 hits. "Everyone always talks about if you get out of the first round anything can happen. Now we've got to find a way to win that next round and that's really our next goal ... to win four more games. If we do that, we'll regroup again."
Thanks to the Blackhawks, Phoenix got plenty of chances to practice regrouping. The Coyotes dominated the final period to make sure there wasn't an NHL record sixth straight OT finish, but until then it was just wave after wave of Chicago's offense – as the Hawks tried in vain to beat Smith.
He turned away every single shot on goal and also picked up a little help from the goalposts.
"I was just trying to stay in the moment and not look too far ahead," Smith said of stopping all 28 shots through the first 40 minutes. "We were trapped in our defensive zone quite a bit, but we still found ways to block shots and do what it takes to win hockey games. I feel very fortunate."
On the flip side, the Hawks had the exact opposite feeling. Corey Crawford allowed four goals on 20 shots and took the loss, but he also kept it scoreless for more than 30 minutes while his teammates poured on the offense. The difference is that this time, the Hawks never really let up on the attack until trailing by three goals late in the third. Meanwhile, they allowed just two shots in the first for Phoenix
– which both came from Ekman-Larsson.
Just like the past two games, however, Smith was up to the task -- including a couple of saves on point-blank opportunities that left the Hawks and their fans shaking their heads in disbelief.
"I don't know what to say right now," Chicago captain Jonathan Toews said. "We worked so hard. We had so many chances and every time we get a chance and it doesn't go in. Coach [Joel Quenneville] keeps saying to keep working, we'll get another one ... it's going to go in eventually. And it just didn't. We didn't get the bounces that we needed to win the game tonight. It's as simple as that."
One of the more memorable Chicago scoring chances came off a 2-on-1 rush just 6:54 into the game, when Kane fed a nice pass to Andrew Shaw speeding through the low slot. Shaw tried to redirect it past Smith, but the Coyotes' goalie calmly slid to his left and stopped it cold.
Johnny Oduya also hit the post in the first with a one-timer off a pretty feed by Toews – and it was more of the same in the second.
Chicago upped its shots advantage to a whopping 28-6 before the second intermission, with the best chance to beat Smith coming just 5:02 into the second. This time, Toews set up Brendan Morrison in the low slot. Smith somehow made a sprawling pad save after the shot was snapped along the ice and again there were groans through the building.
"I had a point-blank chance there, a good play from [Toews]," Morrison said in a second-intermission radio interview. " I just tried to beat him low, quick ... but he's got such long legs. He gets across."
Smith said it was basically just a quick reaction.
"I got a decent push across [the crease] and I was just fortunate to make a save and bury it in my pad," he said. "It was one of those timely saves in games that define, sometimes, winning and losing."
Smith had several of them for the Coyotes, who took a 1-0 lead on Ekman-Larsson's goal at 13:14 of the second – his first career playoff marker. It also capped a power play on just the fourth shot of the period and sixth of the game for Phoenix. After taking a pass from Yandle near the blue line, the 20-year old Ekman-Larsson – a rising Swedish star defenseman – launched a long blast through two Hawks defenders and teammate Martin Hanzal.
"It was a great feeling," Ekman-Larsson told NHL.com. "It wasn't [shot] that hard, but it went in. It was a great feeling to score. It was a big goal."
Hanzal, who was screening Crawford, was playing for the first time since Game 2 – when he got a lower-body injury that held him out for three straight contests. After the puck zipped by him and ripped into the net, the crowd was silenced for a key turning point.
"I was so excited, I felt like I scored the goal," Yandle said. "I was happy for [Ekman-Larsson], happy for us and happy to get off the schneid and get a goal. We knew we weathered the storm a little bit there."
Still, the Hawks kept on pushing while Smith kept turning them away.
Brule's goal made it 2-0 just 2:24 into the third and gave the Coyotes an almost identical two-goal cushion they frittered away in Game 4 to create overtime in that game. Phoenix won that one to take a commanding 3-1 series lead, but this time there would be no giveaways. The Coyotes sealed it up tight and happily celebrated, knowing their dream of bringing the Stanley Cup to the desert were still alive.
"It seems like no matter what happens, somebody's always got something derogatory to say about hockey down in Arizona," Phoenix coach Dave Tippett said. "It’s nice to get that monkey off our backs. You listen to Shane Doan talk about how much this meant to him, to push this thing along. You just recognize all the work that – not just players, but organizational people – have put in to try and make this thing go down there, and it was very gratifying."