Generally the Kentucky Derby is hailed as the most exciting two minutes in sports. But what occurred during the second period of Game 1 was right up there because it lasted longer than most commercials and even a few documentaries. Unoffically, the Phoenix Coyotes toyed with the puck for 1 minute, 46 seconds before scoring their first goal en route to a 3-2 sudden death victory in the Western Conference Quarterfinals opener.
"THE VERDICT" WITH BOB VERDI
The Coyotes were not in the Blackhawks’ end for that entire expanse of time. It just seemed that way. Niklas Hjalmarsson, who was a young Chicago defenseman when the fateful sequence began Thursday night, endured the experience and lived to discuss it Friday morning.
“It’s not often that happens, but we just couldn’t get the puck out of our zone,” recalled Hjalmarsson. “We had chances to but didn’t. And when you’re out there for such a crazy long shift, you get tired and you make bad decisions. I think I made one.”
The Blackhawks were leading 1-0 when the Coyotes went into their Harlem Globetrotters routine. During the passing and possession drill, the Coyotes, accorded the luxury of changing personnel because of a territorial dominance, appeared to have too many men on the ice at one juncture. The Blackhawks argued about it, but maybe they were so fatigued they were seeing double.
Anyway, to complicate matters, Sean O’Donnell lost his stick. From deep on the left side, he swept the puck with his glove toward Hjalmarsson, who was fronting goalie Corey Crawford. “My first instinct was to get it out and away from the net,” said Hjalmarsson, who knocked the puck to the end boards.
Unfortunately for the guests, Daymond Langkow fetched it and fed Taylor Pyatt, who scored for a 1-1 tie at 7:38 of the middle session. “If I had it to do over again,” Hjalmarsson went on, “I would have tried to shoot the puck into the corner instead. But I didn’t. And then when they get the goal, you have a long way to go back to our bench to think about it.”
Whenever a defenseman loses his stick in a pinch, as Hjalmarsson explained, protocol dictates that one of the forwards surrenders his. But the Coyotes were having such fun that Andrew Brunette, Jamal Mayers and Brandon Bollig could not offer emergency assistance. Ten minutes later, the Coyotes gained a 2-1 advantage when Antoine Vermette’s blast beat Crawford.
The Blackhawks, not at their best during the second period, salvaged a 2-2 deadlock with only 15 seconds remaining in regulation thanks to the ever reliable Brent Seabrook. They tried to steal a win in overtime, but yielded the winner to Martin Hanzal, normally a defensive specialist, on a re-direct at 9:29.
Just in case the Blackhawks were still stewing about the alleged missed call, Phoenix coach Dave Tippett declared that the visitors had too many men on the ice for an instant during overtime. So there. He was not so enlightening about the injury to Radim Vrbata, who took two shifts before being rattled on a check by Andrew Shaw, the ubiquitous rookie.
“Upper body, day to day,” said Tippett about his 35-goal scorer and former Blackhawk. Losing Vrbata for Game 2 or beyond would figure to affect the offensively-challenged Coyotes, except for a trait Tippett has savored throughout the regular season and toward a Pacific Division championship. “Not a lot of things bother us,” he concluded.
The Blackhawks, while also averse to panic, might feature a few changes Saturday night. Head Coach Joel Quenneville responded only with a “we’ll see” to questions involving a potential rearrangement of lines. He probably would not object to a better ratio of winning faceoffs, but the Coyotes’ significant edge in hits (48 to 22) did not greatly annoy Coach Q, at least for public consumption.
His old Hartford Whalers pal Tippett didn’t gush about the statistic either. “I think,” he said, “you can sometimes maybe hit too much. We like a physical style, yes, but if you are hitting a lot, you are also defending. You are not handling the puck. I would like to see us with the puck more often. That other team has a lot of skill players.”
Indeed, an impartial observer would have to rate the Blackhawks as superior in depth and talent. But the Coyotes work so hard and grind with such zeal that playing against them is a chore. Plus, they rely on Mike Smith, a goalie who qualifies as a certified late bloomer at age 30. The Blackhawks stung him for a soft score by captain Jonathan Toews early, but didn’t exactly come in waves thereafter. Had not Smith smartly halted Bryan Bickell minutes after Toews clicked, we might be addressing the possibility of the Blackhawks leaving the desert with a 2-0 series lead.
“Smith moves very well,” said Scotty Bowman, the Blackhawks’ Hall of Fame senior advisor for hockey operations. “Goalies are so important now with the salary cap and rosters so even in the league. It used to be you had to have a really outstanding goalie to win a Stanley Cup.
"Now, if a guy gets hot, or stays hot, he can take you all the way. I mean, I coached Hall of Famers like Glenn Hall and Ken Dryden in St. Louis and Montreal, but Tim Thomas was as good last year as I’ve ever seen. He was tremendous, and the Boston Bruins won it all, probably because of him.”
Toews, for the record, reported no problems upon his re-entry to the lineup after missing 22 games. “Absolutely, it’s great to be back,” said Captain Serious, who played 24 minutes, 29 seconds in Game 1 and was a plus-2. “I feel fine. But it’s not about me. It’s about us.”