The pattern was strikingly familiar.
Frightening familiar until the Phoenix Coyotes played their eighth game of this Stanley Cup season.
Until that point, the Coyotes had trouble holding onto leads through this playoff season, and the opposition scored in the third period to send six of the Coyotes’ first seven playoff games into overtime.
Then in Game 8 of this postseason, the Coyotes seemed to exorcise demons of this playoff season, and jumped into three two-goal leads against Nashville.
Changing a previous and disturbing trend, the Coyotes managed to parlay their third two-goal advantage into a 5-3 win over the Predators before 17,217 in Jobing.com Arena on Sunday night.
The result is a 2-0 series lead in this Western Conference semifinal round and an opportunity for the franchise to accomplish something never before accomplished.
Should Phoenix defeat Nashville and move into the conference finals against either the Blues or the Kings, that would be the first time ever that the Winnipeg/Phoenix club advanced that deep in the playoffs.
“That’s something not heard around here, but, at this point, that doesn’t mean anything,” said forward Taylor Pyatt, who scored his third goal of the postseason to create the second two-goal lead. “Right now, we’re focused on Game 3 and our preparation.”
In squeezing out an overtime win in Game 1 against Nashville, the Coyotes came out more energized, with greater purpose and fed off the sellout crowd. In breaking the disconcerting precedent of the previous games, Phoenix, this time, clearly responded in a way in which any formidable opponent would react.
Down 3-1, the Predators’ Patric Hornqvist scored on the power play at 11:20 of the second period, and that cut the Phoenix lead to one goal. Unlike past contests, the Coyotes immediately responded when Pyatt converted Shane Doan’s pass just 30 seconds later for a two-goal lead.
After Ryan Suter scored for the Predators again on the power play early in the third period, Doan reacted by tipping in Derek Morris’ shot from the right point two-and-a-half minutes later for the Coyotes’ third, two-goal margin.
This time, the defense tightened around goalie Mike Smith, the forwards back-checked, and the Coyotes continued to attack. That all led up to what coach Dave Tippett called, “the best 60 minutes we‘ve played in the playoffs.”
“With all the energy in the building, it was nice to respond in a hurry,” Tippett added. “The players knew we had to play better than in Game 1, and we were determined to win again. They said, ‘Why can’t we win Game 2,’ and went out and did it.”
That feeling was echoed around the Coyotes locker room.
“We knew we had to play better,” added Doan, who picked up his second goal of the playoff season. “We were not happy with the previous effort (in Game 1) but grateful for the result.”
This time, the Coyotes played like a team with vengeance and venom. Now, they have an opportunity to take that mentality to Bridgestone Arena where the Predators have lost only twice on home ice since January.
“We’ll enjoy this one for a little while,” said defenseman Keith Yandle. (In Game 2), we rose to the occasion, but if we win 1-0 or 9-8, that doesn’t matter to me. It’s as long as we win.”
For the record, Phoenix won both regular-season games in Nashville. The Coyotes spoiled the Predators home opener on Oct. 13 with a 5-2 victory and also took a 3-2 win on Dec. 6.
RETURNING TO THE ICE
Defenseman David Schlemko returned to the Phoenix lineup and played 15 minutes, 39 seconds in Game 2.
Skating with Adrian Aucoin at the start of the game, he was shifted among Oliver Ekman-Larsson and Aucoin because Rostislav Klesla left the game in the first period when struck by a puck on his chin. Tippett, down to five defenseman, switched pairings but did not spilt Yandle and Derek Morris as a defense pair.
Klesla returned for the third period, but Tippett made a point to cite Schlemko’s value.
“He moves the puck well, and he’s a smart player,” the coach said. “He’s been out for while (appeared in 46 games) and, when he’s in there, he gives us another quality defenseman.”
EDITOR'S NOTE - Quotes in this story were obtained by the author after Nashville at Phoenix game April 29, 2012.