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The Verdict: Hot temperatures, high stakes in Arizona

by Bob Verdi / Chicago Blackhawks

GLENDALE, Ariz.—It is projected to reach 101 degrees Saturday in the Valley of the Sun, a stark contrast from a chilling reality facing the Blackhawks. If they do not win Game 5 of their Western Conference Quarterfinals against the Phoenix Coyotes, the season ends with a first-round knockout, just like last year, only earlier.

“No one thinks we can win this series, but who cares?” says captain Jonathan Toews, mindful that stranger things have happened than a team rallying from a 3-1 deficit to advance. But before that occurs, consider the weird events during just the last week. To wit:

  • The Blackhawks have scored more goals, 3, with six skaters against five than they have with five skaters against four, 1, on powerplays. How? With goalie Corey Crawford pulled, the Blackhawks tallied twice within the remaining 15 seconds to force overtime—a National Hockey League record—in Games 1 and 2 here, then again rescued a tie in regulation Thursday night at the United Center with 1:26 left in the third period.
  • The wily Coyotes are performing with such patience and elan, it’s as though they do this every spring. Nothing could be further from the truth. This franchise has lost 13 consecutive playoff series. The last triumph was in 1987, when the Coyotes were the Jets of Winnipeg. That’s even before Eddie Olczyk and Troy Murray arrived there. Last year, the Coyotes were swept by the Detroit Red Wings. The Coyotes have been here since 1996 without winning a playoff series. The Arizona Diamondbacks won a World Series in their fourth season of existence. In 1999, when the star-crossed Coyotes last led a series 3-1, they lost in seven to St. Louis.
  • In Game 4, Paul Bissonnette was thrown out of the game because of a wardrobe malfunction. During a bout with Brandon Bollig, it was discovered that Bissonnette had failed to fasten his jersey to his pants. That is considered not fighting fair. However, two nights before, Raffi Torres accosted Marian Hossa, who left the rink on a stretcher and went to the hospital. There was no penalty on Torres for the cancelled Czech; in fact, when the whistle finally blew, the Coyotes were awarded a powerplay.
  • Although Phoenix seems content to let the Blackhawks collect a lot of shots and make fancy plays, it was the Coyotes who perpetrated a spectacular Harlem Globetrotters routine in Game 1 when they passed the puck to each other—primarily in Chicago’s end—for 1 minute, 46 seconds before Taylor Pyatt scored to create a 1-1 tie against an exhausted fivesome of Blackhawks whose shift lasted longer than North Korea’s recent rocket launch.
  • Despite the common perception, particularly in Chicago, that the Blackhawks have been jinxed by injuries and absences, the Coyotes have, at one juncture or another, been forced to play without Radim Vrbata, Martin Hanzal, Lauri Korpikoski and, of course, Torres. That’s 75 goals. Yes, when he wasn’t making “hockey plays” during the regular season, Torres had 15.
  • After never meeting in a post-season series, the Coyotes and Blackhawks have become mortal enemies within a week or so, in part because of four consecutive overtime games. The Blackhawks have played a league record six sudden deaths in a row, extending to last April’s final two games against the Vancouver Canucks. The Blackhawks don’t like them, either, and the feeling is mutual.

The only link between the Blackhawks and Coyotes is that sign in Arena marking the retirement of jersey No. 9 for Bobby Hull, Chicago’s Hall of Fame left winger who never played anything except golf in Phoenix but put the Jets on the map in Winnipeg when he jumped there in 1972. In fact, before last week, that’s really the last time the Blackhawks had an issue with this wandering franchise and it took place off the ice. They sued the World Hockey Association.

And so it goes. The Blackhawks and Coyotes have become instant rivals, they’ve staged a couple of instant classics already, and Saturday night, they will leave triple digit temperatures to enter one of the coldest buildings on the planet. You could hang meat in Arena, but the feisty Coyotes have a better idea.

“We just try to hang around,” says coach Dave Tippett. Do they ever. If Chicago has a “Who’s Who” roster, Phoenix is more about “Who’s That?”. But the Coyotes embrace the concept of togetherness, and their devotion to duty is such that playing against them is like logging three hours in the dentist’s chair without a needle. The Coyotes won the Pacific Division by finishing 15 games over .500, yet their goals for and against margin was only a plus-12. Their margin for error is slim, but their lack of offensive weapons is eased by the perpetually penurious goalie, Mike Smith. As Patrick Sharp praised, Smith stops every puck that he sees and a few that he doesn’t see.

The Coyotes are deeper than advertised in all the right places too. Keith Yandle seemed to be everywhere Thursday night at the United Center, but he logged only 19 minutes, 25 seconds on defense. Meanwhile, as per usual, Duncan Keith and Brent Seabrook were both over 30. Seabrook leads the NHL in playoff ice time this post season. He’s on every other minute. Seabrook marked his 27th birthday Friday. We can’t tell you whether he had a cake. We presume that he had a nap.

The Blackhawks have had their fast starts in the series and they’ve had their fast finishes. They’ve also had their fasts, period, when nothing seems to be meshing while the Coyotes just grind away. It would completely fit the odd drift of this tournament if the Blackhawks catch fire Saturday night, win 8-0 for their first shutout of the season and launch a gallant reversal akin to last year’s against the Canucks.

“But we can’t win three games tomorrow night,” Sharp reminded. “We can only win one.”

So, fasten your seat belts. And, guys, make sure your shirt is attached to your pants.

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