GLENDALE -- We’re two games into the Western Conference Semifinals and the Coyotes have a 2-0 series lead over the Nashville Predators. Not only has this club finally gotten over the wall known as the first round of the playoffs, they’ve apparently hit the ground running on the other side. Dave Tippett called his group’s effort on Sunday the best they’ve delivered in the postseason so far, and that’s all you could ever hope to hear from your coach at this time of year.
So how exactly did we get to this point? Funny you should ask, because that’s precisely why I’m writing this blog. The following are the top five reasons Phoenix finds itself up 2-0, in no particular order...
|Mike Smith |
1. GOALTENDING. Okay, so maybe we’ll start with the most important one after all. In case you hadn’t noticed, Mike Smith has been pretty impressive in these playoffs. And this is where stats don’t always tell the full story. A quick glance at the scores from this series shows Smith allowing six goals over two games. That’s not bad by any means, but it’s virtually unheard of from him lately. Regardless, it was his performance in the third period that made it possible for the Wizard to work his magic in overtime of Game 1. And he once again came up with some acrobatic, timely saves in Game 2 to help trigger another Phoenix victory. The Coyotes have made it clear they don’t want to become too reliant on him, but they didn’t exactly have a choice throughout parts of the first contest. And it sure is nice to know he’s there and ready to come up big when needed.
2. VRBATA. As great as Smith has been, he’s not the only reason Phoenix is having success against Nashville. The line of Radim Vrbata, Martin Hanzal and Ray Whitney is clicking again because, well, they’re finally playing together again. When he’s in the zone, Vrbata is capable of posting a 35-goal season. But injuries derailed him a little near the end of the year and he looked like a car that couldn’t get started in Round 1. Fortunately for Phoenix, Whitney always seems to have a spare set of keys to get him out of the garage and rolling again. And when he goes… he really goes. He gets comfortable with the puck and everything he touches seems to find the back of the net. He even pulled a reverse five-hole move on Pekka Rinne to set up Hanzal on Sunday. Who does that?
3. ATTACKING THE NET. Nobody is supposed to score on Rinne. Then again, the Coyotes weren’t supposed to win the Pacific this year either, remember? So much for “conventional wisdom.” Still, we’re talking about one of the best netminders in the NHL - a Vezina finalist this year and last. But Phoenix is one of the few teams that has enjoyed success against him this season. He did shut them out on Nov. 3, but that was also his birthday and the day he signed a 7-year, $49 million deal. Remember how perfectly everything went for you the day you signed your $49 million deal? Nobody was scoring on him that night. In their other five meetings this season though, the Coyotes have put 20 goals behind him (plus an empty netter). Those are good numbers against any goalie, let alone a world-class stopper like Rinne. Could he suddenly slam the door again? Absolutely. But Phoenix has earned some confidence against him – something most teams in this league don’t have.
4. KLESLA. The guy has given up half his face in these playoffs and just keeps going. That deserves a few words in this blog.
|Photo by Norm Hall. |
5. CONSTANT IMPROVEMENT. If you tuned in to Tippett’s press conference after the Game 1 victory, it sounded like the Coyotes had lost. He always views his team as a work in progress and the players have completely bought in to that mentality. To be fair though, Game 1 had some very clear areas that needed to be cleaned up. In fact, it put Tippett in a very interesting position: he didn’t have to look for elements to focus on – it was obvious what they were – yet he still had a 1-0 series lead to work with. And, as a result, Phoenix was the team that came out with the strong push to go up 2-0.
Of course, these aren’t the only reasons this team is winning. Taylor Pyatt is crashing the net. Gilbert Brule, Kyle Chipchura and Daymond Langkow are going into the dirty areas of the ice. Antoine Vermette is leading the NHL in playoff goals scored by anyone that wasn’t involved in that circus known as a first-round matchup between Pittsburgh and Philadelphia. And Shane Doan is doing, well, everything. The series is far from over and Nashville is bound to push back here soon. But the Coyotes will be in good shape if they can just keep doing what they’re doing.