GLENDALE – Once the Coyotes got going in this Western Conference Final, they acquitted themselves quite well.
But by then, they were already two games down and fighting for their playoff lives.
That fight ended 17:42 into overtime Tuesday night, when the Coyotes blew a pair of one-goal leads in the first and second periods and all the momentum they had along with it. They were able to push Game 5 to overtime – their seventh of the postseason – before Dustin Penner's put-back in the slot gave the Kings a 4-3 win, ending the most successful season in Coyotes' history -- three wins shy of a chance to play for the Stanley Cup.
|Photo by Norm Hall. |
"That's what's most disappointing about it -- that we didn't play the start of the series they way we did at the end," Coyotes winger Ray Whitney said. "We just didn't do what we were supposed to do for the first three games and it showed. We played better the last two or two-and-a-half games, but we were just a little too late. Our readiness to compete at that level, the level that they were playing at, just wasn't there early in the series."
The Coyotes had their best first period of the series – and perhaps the postseason – in Game 5, outshooting Los Angeles 7-1 in the first seven minutes and grabbing the lead when Taylor Pyatt tipped home a Martin Hanzal power-play shot 4:20 into the game. But Phoenix failed to bury several other golden opportunities to expand the lead and went to the dressing room even after Anze Kopitar tied the score for the Kings.
"That was our best period of the series and I'm disappointed in myself on the play they got the goal," Coyotes goalie Mike Smith said. "They got the momentum back and that kind of sucked some life out of us for a little bit. I iced the puck, I forced it … and it comes back and it’s in our net. We should have been up 1-0 going in the locker room, but I made a bonehead play by trying to make something out of nothing."
The Coyotes went back up 2-1 in the second period when Marc-Antoine Pouliot put a rebound past Jonathan Quick, but the lead lasted less than five minutes. Drew Doughty and Mike Richards scored 2:37 apart and suddenly Phoenix was back in a familiar spot in this series – chasing the Kings.
Keith Yandle tied the score 3-3 at 16:25, but the Kings put 20 shots on Smith in the second period and the Coyotes' offensive push was waning. They gave the Kings all they wanted in the final three games of the series, but the early stagger they yielded was too much to overcome.
"I thought we had a lot of players that were a little bit awestruck in Game 1, you know?" Coyotes Head Coach Dave Tippett said. "We talked (to our young players) about the bar getting raised, and you're going to have to be better. But in Game 1, I think we stood around and watched the game a lot. In Game 2, first half of the game I thought we played very well, got ourselves in it, got ourselves in penalty trouble.
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"Really for the rest of the series after that, it was very tight. But you have to give (the Kings) credit for what they're doing. They're playing a pretty complete game there those first few games. We went in, played a strong Game 4."
Amid the pain of elimination and the frustration of a quick end in overtime, players were able to acknowledge the pride they felt in an unlikely season with adversity on and off the ice.
"It (hurts) right now. It's not fun to lose or to be done," Smith said. "But we accomplished a lot as a group. At the beginning of the season, not many people had us in the conference finals or winning a division. We played some great stretches, when we were in deep trouble in January (12th place) we had a great February (11-0-1) and showed the character we had in the locker room. It stings the way we have to go out, but someone has to lose."
Whitney, in his 20th NHL season, said this team is one he'll remember fondly.
"This group did a lot of great things with all the uncertainties surrounding it," he said. "The players we have, the payroll we have … when you look at the word 'team', this is what you see. Everybody has to contribute, everybody has to chip in or it's not going to be successful. I couldn't be more proud of a group of guys who as a group barely made it into the playoffs and got to the conference finals."