Stanley Cup Playoffs 2012: Phoenix Coyotes Stay Alive with Better Execution

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Stanley Cup Playoffs 2012: Phoenix Coyotes Stay Alive with Better Execution
Harry How/Getty Images
Shane Doan picked up the first of two goals on this power-play score in the first period.

LOS ANGELES - Maybe a cruel act of desperation can bring out the best.

That was certainly the case Sunday afternoon when the Phoenix Coyotes, facing elimination and commencement of their summer vacation, pulled out a team “hat trick,” and survived to play another day.

In defeating the Los Angeles Kings 2-0 before 18,402 in the Staples Center, the Coyotes displayed three facets of their game—better puck movement, better forechecking and taking advantage of opportunities—to extend this Western Conference final round.

With the win, the Coyotes forced a fifth game Tuesday night at Jobing.com Arena, but they continue to trail in this best-of-seven series 3-1.

Why it took three games for the Coyotes to engineer scoring chances and, for the most part, control the neutral zone, their complete level remains outstanding. Phoenix goalie Mike Smith indicated how facing the end of the hockey season pushed his team to the precipice.

“This was a game we had to win,” he said after recording his third shutout this playoff season to tie the Rangers’ Henrik Lundqvist for the league lead. “We didn’t panic. People talk about desperation, but that really doesn’t settle in until you realize this could be your last game.”

As the proceeding three games played out, Game 4 began in similar fashion. The Kings dominated play with keeping four players between the blue lines and forcing the Coyotes to play mostly in their end. The shot total reflected the continued imbalance of play, and after 20 minutes, the Kings held a 10-5 advantage.

Harry How/Getty Images
Mike Smith and teammates savor the Game 4 victory.

With Shane Doan’s power-play goal at 14:19 of the opening period, the Coyotes' mindset seemed to change. Instead of watching the Kings control play, Phoenix, by some mystical power, began to alter the course of play.

Doan also added the Coyotes’ second goal on a blast so quick that Doan admitted he did not see the puck enter the Kings’ net. His second goal at 11:10 of the second period represented all the scoring, and it pumped energy into a faltering life support system.

Forechecking appeared to surface, and the Kings' once-invincible domination of the entire 200 by 85-foot ice surface dissipated.

“We were able to make a better first pass over the blue line, and that was the difference,” said Doan. “Once you can get that pass over the blue line, it opens up play, and we did not do that before.”

That represented greater puck movement and helped break a logjam in the neutral zone Los Angeles created over the past three games.

The Coyotes also changed their essential approach to the game.

Phoenix had not been terribly pro-active in this series, and that represented one of the significant factors why they fell behind. In Game 4, overall play was much improved.

“We had better execution with the puck, and we made better decisions,” said forward Ray Whitney, who assisted on Doan’s power-play goal. “I thought we had more jump to our play and players were on the same page with a strong effort.”

Harry How/Getty Images
Rostislav Klesla helped to pressure the Kings net.

In their ability to transition from a team walking the plank to a team now with a renewed spirit, the game was very similar of how the Coyotes played down the stretch. That effort helped gain entrance to the playoffs, and it pushed the Coyotes past Chicago and Nashville.

In winning the last five games of the regular season, and three with Smith shutting out San Jose, Anaheim and Columbus, Game 4 of this Western finals evolved in a similar manner.

The Coyotes were able to contain the Kings' wingers, which allowed Smith to make the initial save, and Smith, in turn, dropped few rebound opportunities in the slot. Though the Kings out-shot Phoenix 36-21, pressure came essentially from the outside.

Defenseman Drew Doughty tied with winger Trevor Lewis for the most shots on Smith with five, but shot production from the Kings' reliable scorers indicated the creditable job the Phoenix defense did to keep lethal scorers at bay.

From the Kings' top line, captain Dustin Brown had only two shots on net, Azne Kopitar had two and Justin Williams managed three shots on net. Plus, the Kings went 0-for-6 on the power play, and that caught immediate attention.

“We took too much time,” said Darryl Sutter, the Kings' coach. “When you take that much time, it shows poor shooting on our part. Plus, they had a strong fore-check, and our guys did not respond to their forechecking.”

IT’S NOT OVER UNTIL IT’S OVER

In an effort to finish off Phoenix, the Kings now take their unbeaten playoff record back on the road.

Here, they have won a franchise-record eight away from Staples Center, and the NHL record for consecutive road wins in one playoff season is 11 by the 1992 Blackhawks, the 1992 Penguins and the 1993 Canadiens.

Still, the task ahead for Phoenix remains formidable.

In the previous two games at Jobing-com Arena in this series, the Coyotes have scored two goals for the 120 minutes, both in Game 1.

Plus, the two goals in Game 4 was the sixth time this playoff season Kings goalie Jonathan Quick has allowed that many in any one game, save surrendering three in a 3-1 defeat to Vancouver at home during Game 4 of the opening round.

The two Doan goals was the first time the Kings allowed back-to-back goals since Game 4 of the Vancouver series.

“You still need to win four games,” Sutter said. “Right now, there’s not a great difference between the two teams. To win in the playoffs, you still need great goaltending and good defense.”

The last time the Kings were shut in a playoff game was April 29, 2002 by Patrick Roy of Colorado.

 

Mark Brown is a Featured Columnist for Bleacher Report. Unless otherwise noted, all quotes were obtained first-hand.

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