CHICAGO -- They're the team from the desert and the team that's always reminded about its ownership situation -- one that's often described as "uncertain" and usually brings questions about the Phoenix Coyotes moving elsewhere.
They are a working-class team without big-name stars and the team that employs both Raffi Torres and goalie Mike Smith -- who've drawn the ire of the Chicago Blackhawks and their fans for a pair of controversial plays in this Western Conference Quarterfinal series.
The Coyotes also played Thursday night's pivotal Game 4 at United Center without their two key injured players -- Martin Hanzal and Lauri Korpikoski -- for a second straight game. And yet, despite coughing up a late lead for the third time in a week to force a fourth straight overtime game, the Coyotes found another way to win in OT, beating the Blackhawks 3-2.
Phoenix owns a 3-1 lead in the series -- the first time they've had one since 1999 -- and the franchise can advance past the first round for the first time in 25 years by winning Saturday night before what's sure to be a fired-up sellout crowd at Jobing.com Arena.
"We're used to playing long now," quipped Mikkel Boedker, who scored his second straight OT game-winner at 2:15 of the extra period to help erase the memory of coughing up yet another late lead. "I mean, we've done it for four games [in a row] and obviously we'd like to not go to overtime. That's probably what everybody [would prefer], but overtime happens and we're just happy we won three of them."
They're also a team that refuses to become derailed thus far in the playoffs by off-ice issues they can't control -- in fact, those problems might actually have helped the Coyotes deal with adversity in other areas, such as high-stakes overtime games like this one.
"I think the [ownership] situation ... we have grown callous to, we really have," said Phoenix captain Shane Doan, whose rebound goal at 7:03 of the third period was the first scored by either team. "We do recognize that is the situation we're in. We're not blind to it. We've grown callous to it. Then ... other things don't really affect you as much, because it's just the way it's going to be."
Other things, like Torres being suspended and vilified in Chicago for delivering a controversial hit in Game 3 that put Hawks star Marian Hossa on a stretcher and kept him out of this game. Other things, like Smith stopping 30 of 32 shots he faced for the win despite getting booed lustily every time he left the crease to play the puck -- the way he did in Game 2, when Chicago's Andrew Shaw ran into him and drew a three-game suspension.
Other things, like taking a 2-0 lead on Doan's goal and another by Taylor Pyatt 44 seconds later, then watching two rarely-used Blackhawks -- Brendan Morrison and Michael Frolik -- score to send the game into overtime. Frolik's goal with 1:26 left in regulation marked the third time in four games that the Hawks got the tying tally after pulling goaltender Corey Crawford for an extra attacker.
None of it mattered to the Coyotes, who regrouped yet again in their locker room after regulation ended. Thanks to Boedker, they found a way for the second game in a row and third time in the first four to come out on top in OT, delivering stinging defeats to the Blackhawks with each one.
"It's a great team to be a part of, especially this year," said defenseman Keith Yandle, who's been part of the Phoenix teams that were ousted in the first round by the Detroit Red Wings in each of the last two years. "You have a feeling that we haven't had the last few years. It's almost like we're a bunch of misfits here. You don't get a lot of attention from the media or whatever, so we just like to go play our game and fly under the radar a little bit and have our fun."
Boedker made sure there was more fun to be had when he trumped Frolik's pulse-pounding goal. Boedker beat Nick Leddy to a loose puck in the neutral zone, popped the puck over the speedy Chicago defenseman's stick and was off to the races toward Blackhawks goalie Corey Crawford (16 saves). The OT hero in Game 3 took the air out of the building yet again by fighting his way past Leddy and going backhand-to-forehand at full speed before sliding the puck through Crawford's pads.
"Actually, I don't know how it went in, but I'm happy it did," Boedker said. "I was [partially] alone there, I think for a little bit, at least. There were a lot of sticks and hooks and stuff like that, but it went in and it was an amazing feeling."
The Coyotes know the series isn't over yet, but the momentum has swung toward Phoenix. They are one victory away from the franchise's first playoff series triumph since 1987, when they were the Winnipeg Jets.
"It would be huge," said Doan, who added six of his team's 50 hits and blocked four shots. "It's not going to hurt us, that's for sure. Winning the [Pacific Division] was big, and we'd never done that before. Finding a way to get out of that first round ... that'd be big."
Doan, the only Coyote who was with the team when it moved from Winnipeg to the desert in 1996, couldn't help but think about the naysayers and those who still see the Coyotes as more of an afterthought than a true contender to make a deep playoff run.
"Hopefully you'd start to get some credit for the good things [we've] done [and] for the momentum [we've] created, instead of the first comment made about the team, 'Well ... the ownership,' " Doan said. "It'd be something, but [the last one's] the hardest one to win."
The first three haven't exactly been easy.
Chicago came out seeing red because of the Hossa situation and put a lot of early heat on Smith and the Coyotes defense. Chicago led 23-10 in shots through the first two periods, and the Hawks thought they'd taken a 1-0 lead in the second on another play by Frolik -- when he tried to beat Smith through the five hole off a breakway.
However, the goal was disallowed because the whistle had blown the play dead before the puck crossed the goal line -- drawing the ire of Hawks fans. Frolik made up for it with time running out in regulation by shoveling home a rebound with just 86 seconds left -- just a few ticks after Crawford had reached the bench and been replaced by an extra attacker.
Phoenix has taken one-goal leads into the final stages of Games 1, 2 and 4, only to see the Hawks tie the game each time. When Frolik beat two Coyotes to a loose rebound in the crease and whacked it home to knot the game at 2-2, he sent the teams to overtime for the fourth time in as many games -- the first time a series has started with four consecutive OT games since the 1951 Stanley Cup Final, when Montreal beat Toronto in a five-game series that saw each game go past regulation.
Chicago also took part in an NHL-record sixth consecutive overtime game, but has lost four of them. The only ones they care about right now, however, are the three in this series.
"It sure doesn’t feel like we’re down 3-1 in the series," captain Jonathan Toews said. "Every game’s been close, but I think tonight, especially, it’s a little disappointing. We played well enough to win, but it never really felt like we took control of that game at any point."
Smith had a lot to do with that. But another big reason the Hawks didn't take an early lead in the first was because of the Coyotes' defense, which blocked nine shots in the opening period and 21 in the game. Not being able to crack through with a goal appeared to frustrate Chicago, and after two periods of getting outplayed, the Coyotes picked it up in the third.
Phoenix came out strong in the final period and kept Crawford busy before taking the lead on Doan's goal at 7:03. It came as the result of a brilliant individual effort -- he stripped the puck from Johnny Oduya in the right circle of the Hawks zone to set it up, then zipped a cross-ice pass to Ray Whitney for a shot Crawford had to scramble to stop. Doan scooped the rebound into the net for his first goal of the series.
Just 44 seconds later, Pyatt scored his second of the series, set up by a short feed from Antoine Vermette behind the net, to make it 2-0.
However, Chicago got back within one on Morrison's goal -- his first point as a Blackhawk. Morrison's shot deflected off defenseman Rostislav Klesla's stick blade and sailed over Smith's shoulder to set the stage for an exciting end to another nail-biter.
And another victory for the NHL's Little Engine That Could.
"Everyone always talks about the adversity we deal with on a day-to-day basis, but one thing that adversity can do is really bond or galvanize your group, and we’ve seen it," Coyotes coach Dave Tippett said. "It started three years ago and it continues to galvanize us."
1 - 0 PHX
2 - 0 PHX
2 - 1 PHX
2 - 2 Tie
1st OT Period
3 - 2 PHX
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