The easy math dictates the Phoenix Coyotes have reached the half-way point in the quest for hockey’s grail.
That’s where the equation gets messy.
No one, except for this intrepid band of ice warriors, gave them much a chance to play hockey in May.
Least of all, the opportunity to play what could be late into May.
After finishing off the Nashville Predators in five games with a dramatic 2-1 win Monday night at Jobing.com Arena, the Coyotes stand on the precipice of an accomplishment no team in franchise history—Winnipeg or Phoenix—has witnessed.
The Coyotes now advance to the NHL’s version of the Final Four and face the Los Angeles Kings in the Western Conference finals. While this is the reality for the moment, the realization will soon hit the Coyotes that they are four wins away from playing for the Stanley Cup.
“You love to see people rewarded for their and effort,” said coach Dave Tippett after Game 5. “This team has gone through the kind of adversity that no other team in the league faced. The players continue to be unbelievable in the way they focus to the task at hand.”
In the end, good teams find ways to win, and that how the Coyotes sliced through the Chicago Blackhawks in Round 1 and diced the Nashville Predators in Round 2.
The work ethic displayed, the play of goaltender Mike Smith, the effort of the defense and defensive play in front of Smith plus timely goals all interacted to carry the Coyotes to the conference finals.
“There’s a reason why they beat the Blackhawks and a reason why they beat us,” said Barry Trotz, the Nashville coach. “There’s only one stat that counts and they scored more goals they we did.”
After putting Nashville away, the consensus in the Coyotes locker room was that a strong defensive effort carried play. Plus, there was the usual talk of being at the right place at the right time for timely scores and being in the right position to create chances.
That represented the game-winner in Game 5 when Martin Hanzal, taking a pass from Kyle Chipchura, drilled a wrist shot past a stunned Pekka Rinne at 15:09 of the second period. That gave Phoenix a 2-0 lead and the Coyotes survived Colin Wilson’s goal at 14:01 of the final period to hang on for the series win.
“I thought the difference was our ability to get timely goals,” said defenseman Derek Morris, whose goal at 3:54 of the second period put Phoenix on the scoreboard. “Plus, this team was focused on the job we had to do. Also, you can’t overlook the job Mike Smith did, and again (Monday night), he was huge.”
Afterward, someone asked Smith that his team is four wins away from the finals, and that did not seem to mean anything.
“At this point, it’s one game at a time,” he said. “I’m not thinking ahead. There are so many ebb and flows to a season and to a game and in the end, it comes down to what you can control.”
With the Kings looming, this could be duel of goaltenders.
L.A.’s Jonathan Quick leads netminders with an 1.54 goals against in nine playoff games. Smith’s average was 1.84 going into the fifth game of the Nashville, and both should be considered early Conn Smythe trophy favorites.
Then again, this MVP in the playoffs usually goes to a player on the winning Cup team, and at this point Quick and Smith are even, with the winner of his team’s next eight games likely to hold the winning lottery ticket.
Coyotes’ defenseman Adrian Aucoin left Game 5 in the second period with an undisclosed injury.
That left Phoenix with five defensemen. David Schlemko, who played a limited schedule for the most of the season due to a back injury, played a strong 17 minutes, 22 seconds.
Regarding play at the blue line, Tippett cited a consistent effort.
“The defense has played exceptionally well through out the playoffs,” the coach said. “As a team, we bend but we don’t break. (At the Monday morning skate), our guys were very focused and, throughout the playoffs, we’ve capitalized on chances.”
The Coyotes are off on Tuesday and resume practice Wednesday morning at Jobing.com Arena.
First rumors have the Kings-Coyotes series opening this Saturday afternoon at 12 noon/3 p.m. ET sometime Sunday afternoon, or Monday night.
The Coyotes receive home-ice advantage in the Western finals, and the first two games are slated for Jobing.com Arena.
With the Clippers and Lakers still in the NBA playoffs, the Kings will have to dance around their schedules to solidify home dates for Games 3 and 4 at the Staples Center.
Mark Brown is a Featured Columnist for Bleacher Report. Unless otherwise noted, all quotes were obtained first-hand.