GLENDALE, Ariz.—Did anybody really think this would be easy?
Certainly not the Blackhawks, who fell, 3-2, to the Phoenix Coyotes in Game 1 of the Stanley Cup Western Conference Quarterfinals Thursday night on Martin Hanzal’s goal at 9:29 into the perilous world of sudden death.
The victory was so typical of the Coyotes, who work overtime even when their assignment lasts just 60 minutes. They don't play like a team with a checkered playoff history, or like league orphans looking for local love and a local owner. In this postseason opener before a rare sellout at Jobing.com Arena, the Coyotes had numerous opportunities to cave.
They were stung early when Jonathan Toews, the Blackhawks’ spiritual leader, staged a stunning return to the lineup by scoring at 4:04 of the first period against Mike Smith, a terrific goalie who was not terrific on Captain Serious’ backhander to the short side.
Soon the Coyotes also had to deal with the absence of Radim Vrbata, a 35-goal scorer who logged two shifts for a total of 30 seconds before departing with an upper body injury. And just when it seemed Coyotes would hang onto a 2-1 lead, Brent Seabrook tied matters with 15 seconds remaining in the third period.
A lesser group might have succumbed, but the feisty Coyotes prevailed on Hanzal’s deflection past Corey Crawford on “WhiteOut Night.” With the exception of a gaggle of Blackhawks garb in the audience, fans donned white t-shirts draped over every seat in the building, save for chairs in a suite reserved for Chicago’s upper management.
The Blackhawks insisted that the first Phoenix goal by Taylor Pyatt was achieved with too many men on the ice. So intense and prolonged was the pressure in Chicago ice, it appeared the Coyotes had a dozen men in the zone, never mind a half dozen. The Blackhawks knew they would be targets in a hit parade, and they were. They appear to possess more skill than the Coyotes, but the Coyotes do not lack for grit or passion.
After the game, Head Coach Joel Quenneville seemed to be wishing for a bit more of either from his players, and the power play did not click. In the third period, for instance, the Blackhawks had a pair. On one, they went offside. On another, they couldn’t solve Smith even when he was stickless for a spell.
But while the visitors could not produce with five skaters against four, they shocked the Coyotes with six skaters against five when Patrick Kane patiently arranged for Seabrook’s marker. That sucked the air out of the arena in no uncertain terms. However, after a brief intermission, the Coyotes sent the masses happily into a warm spring evening, leaving Head Coach Dave Tippett to ponder what Saturday night’s Game 2 might be like if his team doesn’t do just a bit more in the puck possession department.
Vrbata, he announced, is day-to-day. And if the Coyotes are missing his 35 goals, this series won’t be easy for them, either.