Most pundits believe the Los Angeles Kings have the Western Conference series all but wrapped up with a colorful ribbon.
To those directly involved, each would caution not to make such wild predictions nor press any panic buttons. After Game 4 of the Western Conference finals, Kings’ coach Darryl Sutter reminded listeners, “it takes four to win.”
With a commanding 3-1 lead in the series, the Kings now skate back to Jobing.com Arena undefeated in road games this playoff season and look to advance. Not to their major surprise, the Phoenix Coyotes, with renewed vigor and spirit, will be waiting in earnest.
Though the realistic Coyotes still view their situation as desperate, the life support monitor in the corner of the locker room continues to hum. The strength of the graph may not be quite pronounced, but the Coyotes show life in this series.
“We’ve shown resiliency all season and feel good about (Game 5),” said Taylor Pyatt after practice Monday afternoon at Jobing.com Arena. “We’re happy to be back home, we know the fans will be loud and the building should be electric.”
Coming off the 2-0 shutout in Game 4 at the Staples Center, the Coyotes think they’ve figured out a way to beat the Kings. Not only has Los Angeles clogged the neutral zone to prevent breakouts—and net minder Jonathan Quick remains stellar—the Coyotes have an answer to break the Kings’ roadblock at center ice.
“(In Game 4), we did a better job of gaining the next zone,” said Antoine Vermette. “We also had all five guys on the ice fore-checking as a unit. We were also tighter as a unit and that helped.”
For the Coyotes to go back to the Staples Center for Game 6, they must continue to negate any Kings domination of the area between the blue lines. For the first three games and through the opening period in Game 4, L.A. made it very difficult for Phoenix to generate any puck movement or speed.
The result was control of the game, added pressure and pucks on goaltender Mike Smith, and the ability to effectively shut down the Coyotes from any sustainable attack.
Now that the Coyotes generated greater puck movement in Game 4 and effectively utilized the speed for Mikkel Boedker, Lauri Kopikoski and Vermette along with intelligence and acumen from captain Shane Doan, Ray Whitney and Daymond Langkow, Phoenix believes this series is far from over.
“We have a great group of guys who will not allow us to fail,” said Boedker, who has eight points in the 15 playoff games to date. “At this point, we have to play our game, play hard and we’re confident.”
After practice Monday, Doan was speaking to reporters about a recent conversation he had with the Flyers’ Danny Briere.
In the Eastern Conference finals two years ago against Boston, the Flyers were down 3-0 and roared back to tie the series.
In Game 7, they fell behind 3-0 before coming back to win and advance to the Stanley Cup finals against the Chicago Blackhawks.
Briere and Doan were teammates with the Coyotes during Briere’s five seasons in the desert and part of a sixth before being traded to Buffalo on March 10, 2003.
It was natural that Doan and Briere would hook up and share notes on being down 0-3 in the conference finals.
“Danny encouraged us to keep plugging,” Doan said. “We know it’s been done before and we would love to have the opportunity to do it again.”
After missing three straight games, Phoenix defenseman Adrian Aucoin returned for Game 4.
However, the 38-year-old native of Ottawa did not finish the contest and played 12 minutes, 17 seconds.
Aucoin did not participate in Monday’s practice and said his availability for Game 5 will be a game-time decision.
“I felt a little rusty (in Game 4), and you have to respond to the intensity and increased tempo of a game like that,” he said, standing outside the Coyotes locker room after Monday’s practice. “I have the usual bumps and bruises. I’ll skate (Tuesday morning) and see how I feel.”
With Aucoin missing the previous three games in this series, coach Dave Tippett has turned to Michael Stone and David Schlemko.
What's happened to the top line?
In the 15 playoff games this spring, the Coyotes’ top line of center Martin Hanzal, left wing Ray Whitney and right Radim Vrbata has scored a combined 15 points, including seven goals.
Compare those numbers to the combined 173 points in the 82 regular season games and 67 goals.
Vrbata emerged as the sniper the Coyotes desperately sought and the 30-year-old native of Mlada Boleslav, Czech Republic responded with a 35 goal season—a career high.
In the post-season, Vrbata went down after 30 seconds in Game 1 against Chicago, and his two post-season goals came in Game 1 and Game 2 of the Nashville series.
In the Coyotes last seven postseason games, Vrbata has had no scoring points.
“Vrbata is an opportunistic player,” Tippett said. “If chances are coming, it’s an indication that his game is improving. Now the next step is to make some of those chances count.”
Mark Brown is a Featured Columnist for Bleacher Report. Unless otherwise noted, all quotes were obtained first-hand.