Facing a win-or-be-eliminated Game 4 on Sunday afternoon against a rampaging Los Angeles Kings team going for the sweep before a frenzied crowd at the Staples Center, the Phoenix Coyotes received two goals from captain Shane Doan and a 36-save shutout from goalie Mike Smith to grind out a series-extending 2-0 win in Game 4 of the Western Conference Final.
Sunday, the Coyotes stopped thinking about how disappointed they would be to lose. They stopped obsessing over the brilliance of Kings goalie Jonathan Quick and they stopped worrying about the calls that they believe went against them in a taut 2-1 loss in Game 3 on Thursday that changed the face of this series.
They just played the game the way they know how to play it, believing it would deliver them a favorable result.
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"That was Coyote hockey," said veteran forward Ray Whitney, who assisted on Doan's first goal. "When you have nothing to lose, you just throw it all out there and see what happens. Tonight, I think you saw we weren't quite as nervous with the puck. We were letting our legs and energy dictate how we were going to play and we thought less.
"It's such a fast tempo and such a physical game that when you start thinking about it, you tend to slow down. Tonight, with nothing to lose, we were able to go out there and play and maybe relax a little bit."
That effort showed most in the ability to break out of their own zone and actually enter the Kings' zone at speed and in possession of the puck.
"(The breakout) was one of our focuses in the game plan," said Antoine Vermette, who set up Doan's second goal with a faceoff win. "We wanted to try to gain the next zone a little better. By doing that, you establish a little more pressure and then you can make them defend a little bit."
In Game 3, especially in the latter stages, the Kings were breaking up outlet pass after outlet pass, forcing a procession of turnovers and giveaways that allowed the Kings to get into their transition game and spend most of the game skating downhill. The Coyotes had just eight shots during the final two periods of Game 3.
Sunday, the Coyotes were a lot more sure-handed in possession of the puck, especially as the game progressed. They had just seven giveaways in the whole game and didn't make more than three in a period.
In Game 3, the Coyotes couldn't make that first pass In a successful manner. That allowed the Kings to get in on the forecheck and harry the puck possessor even more. In Game 4, that first pass was successful far more often.
"As a group we made that first pass better," Doan said. "We got it past the blue line. Too many times (earlier in series), we were trying to make the cute pass just short of the blue line. The next guy was having trouble handling that pass and they were able to turn it over. If we can make the pass over the blue line, it opens up a little more ice."
There were two other factors that really helped the Coyotes transition on Sunday. It will be interesting to see if they make the trip for Game 5 on Tuesday.
In Game 4, the Kings were not as successful in keeping the puck away from Smith, one of the premiere puck-handling goalies in the League. Too often, the Kings forwards dumped the puck into areas Smith could reach and, therefore, play the puck.
And, Smith is as sure a passer as most defensemen on the Coyotes' roster.
"It's a safety blanket maybe we count on sometimes too much," Doan admitted.
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But, on more than one occasion Sunday afternoon, Smith derailed the Kings' aggressive forecheck by ping-ponging the puck to a Coyotes' forward on the attacking side of the red line.
"I mean, when he gets the puck, us forwards, if he misses you up ice, it's like, 'Come on, what's going on, you didn't see me?' Doan said, laughing for perhaps the first time in this series. "It's unbelievable that you would even ever have that cross your mind as a forward, but he's literally that good."
The other key was the reintroduction of veteran defenseman Adrian Aucoin into the lineup. The veteran showed little rust and is one of the most adept defenders on the Phoenix roster when it comes to making a successful outlet pass.
"He can eat up some minutes for you," coach Dave Tippett said. "Solid with his play. For not playing for probably 10 days, he came in and gave us some solid minutes. Real boost to us."
Aucoin, who played 12:17 in the game, was not on the bench late in the third period and may have suffered another injury, although Tippett had no update.
Now, the question becomes: Have the Coyotes figured out a way to blunt the Kings' forecheck? Or, was this a one-off occurrence?
"I thought last game, first period, we were pretty good," Vermette said. "If you look at the last six periods, we're going in the right direction and hopefully we can keep playing better hockey."
Author: Shawn P. Roarke | NHL.com Senior Managing Editor