Yes the title of this post is correct. And yes this is still a Caps blog. But there is a saying...they that pay the piper call the tune. Well, my tune has been called, and it comes from the direction of the great American Southwest. I've mentioned one of best friends, Pete, on both the blog here and on the podcast. We both grew up hockey fans. We watched the Caps' highs and lows and marveled at the great Rangers teams of the 1990's. So when he went out to Arizona State University after we both graduated high school naturally he began following the Coyotes. And though they lost last night against the Predators, don't think for a second that they've lost their grip. This could well be their finest hour. Which is exactly why I'm lending my voice to give an evaluation of how this team got to where it is now and where it will go in its quest for the Cup.
Most who give a damn, or at least those of us in the hockey world know the story of the Coyotes as it is now--they're in need of an owner and for whatever reason, it's gotten to be a lot more complicated than it should have been. Until that time the League is paying the bills, and has been for going on three years now. And through it all, the Coyotes have been playing some damn fine hockey. But this year they managed to take it up a notch and win the Pacific Division title.
And that takes us to the playoffs. Their first test wasn't an easy one, the Chicago Blackhawks. But they beat them in six games. Through it all there were the controversies of the suspensions of Raffi Torres and goalie Mike Smith's questionable injury that got Andrew Shaw banished for a few games. But through it all, they didn't back down and did what they had to do, even if it meant working overtime...literally.
So that's the back story anyway. And now they stand two wins away from the Conference Final. But who are these guys that do what they do, playing a game on ice in a land where ice doesn't tend to last very long That, folks is the key to their success--it's who they are that makes them what they are on the ice. I will explain.
It starts with their coach, Dave Tippett. There's no flashy, headline grabbing star here. It's 20 plus guys that take their direction in a belief that a team game wins the day. Sometimes they'll light it up for more than just 2 or three if you give them the opportunity, but usually they'll stick to their guns and wait for you to make a mistake. Tippett's game plan ensures that all 19 guys (20, minus the backup goalie) work hard and make the most of their efforts. And they're relentless. Don't believe me? Watch their games. Because they're like the mail with the Postal Service--they keep coming in waves, even after the budget's been cut.
Their on-ice leader is Shane Doan, who has been the team's Captain since 2003. If anyone personifies this team, it's Doan. He's the last holdover from when the team came over from Winnipeg back in 1996. He will do anything it takes to win: score, fight, block shots, hit, hustle. He's even gone over the line once, being suspended last year for an illegal hit. But, to be good, you have to play with an edge, and Doan has that. His scoring touch has slowed some, but don't count him out when a goal is needed.
Taking a look at the offensive side of the puck, the Yotes have several options on the attack. First there's the grand old man of the team, Ray Whitney, AKA, the "Wizard." His OT goal in Game 1 set the tone for this series against Nashville as he is always a threat to score. He's still getting it done and he hasn't even hit 40 years young yet...but he will May 8. Then there's Antoine Vermette, a slick center picked up at the trade deadline from Columbus. He leads the team in points so far this playoff season. And for speed and clutch scoring, there is Mikkel Boedker. The Great Dane is coming into his own this playoffs, with two OT goals and is one of the fastest players in the league.
On the defensive side of the puck, there's a roll call filled with puck movers and hard hitters. Keith Yandle and Rostislav ("Rusty") Klesla are the puck movers and Derek Morris and Adrian Aucoin are the hitters. But the crown jewel of the defensive corps is young Oliver Ekman-Larsson. The Swedish Treat is a Norris Trophy winner in the making and gets a lot of love from all the different hockey shows and podcasts I listen to. Yandle led the D-corps in points, but it won't be too long before he passes that torch to Ekman-Larsson. They are the key to the transition game that keeps them in so many games.
Finally, we have the last line of defense--the goalie. Mike Smith was handed the goaltending duties this year when Ilya Bryzgalov left via free agency. To say that his road to success has been bumpy would be an understatement. He started out in Dallas then was traded to Tampa Bay, where he struggled with consistency and eventually lost his job to Dwayne Roloson. Many had said he was finished and wrote him off as a career backup. But Tippett, his old coach in Dallas, saw something in him and pushed to have him picked up before the season began. And before anyone says it's Tippett's system that is the key and not Smith's goaltending, consider this: In 9 playoff games he's stopped 94.2% of the shots he's faced and has made at least 30 saves in every one of his starts except for the last game against Nashville, where he still stopped 24 of 26 in a losing effort.
Sometimes all you have to be is the right guy at the right time in the right situation.
In the playoffs, the trick is to find a way to win, no matter what. This team is two wins away from its first ever trip to a Conference Final. Beyond that lies the Cup. And as I've said, anything is possible in the Stanley Cup Playoffs. And this is not your typical "trapping" team either: they fight for every loose puck and they skate as hard as anybody. When even that breaks down, they have a goalie who has done nothing less but stand on his head.
So to hockey fans from Glendale to Gibraltar and back, I'm putting in a couple zinc lincs: give the Phoenix Coyotes a chance. Watch them play. They will win you over, even if they don't win the game. Though this year feels different...I'll be watching, and loving every minute of it!