One game a season does not make it, but the Phoenix Coyotes provided a glimpse of what could be an interesting season ahead.
In registering an opening-night 4-1 victory over the New York Rangers before a home sellout crowd of 17,125 and new owner George Gosbee Thursday night, the Coyotes showed why they can be a very good team or a marginal squad.
On this night, they threw the clock back two years ago and rode the coattails of goalie Mike Smith, who turned away 23 of 24 Ranger shots. In the process, Smith showed flashes of his play two years ago in leading the Coyotes to the Western Conference Final against the Los Angeles Kings.
If the Coyotes exercise the same kind of puck pursuit, puck management and face-off control in the coming months, this could be one of the surprise teams.
Then again, if the work ethic, discipline and execution displayed in the opening-night win over the Rangers is compromised, Phoenix will likely watch the Stanley Cup playoffs on television next spring.
“We were quick to get in our system and to stay there,” said captain Shane Doan, who led the Coyotes with five shots on goal. “This is what we need to do night after night. We’re a team that chases the puck and wants to play well in the neutral zone. We have to keep doing what we did against the Rangers.”
If certain trends develop from the opening-night win, the Coyotes will likely be in a position to dictate their future.
In particular, two developments were worth nothing.
First, the play of Smith.
Making both routine and spectacular saves, Smith appeared to play his “greatest hits.” One save was noteworthy as it kept the Coyotes ahead.
With the Coyotes up 1-0 early in the opening period, Phoenix defenseman David Rundblad was called for holding. During this Rangers power play, Smith dove across the crease and stopped Benoit Pouliot in front with a sprawling save. That preserved the one goal lead and lifted Phoenix to its victory.
“At the start, I didn’t feel all that unbelievable,” Smith said. “I was not moving as fast as I would like. Some times when you don’t have the best feeling is when you play strong. I settled down after that emotional start, and I thought we played a solid game.”
Then, there was the passion.
Smith, like many of his teammates, cited the heightened emotion of the moment as a principal catalyst for the win.
After Gosbee and his IceArizona partners were introduced before the game and dropped the opening puck, the sellout crowd roared in appreciation of having hockey in the desert and on a long-term basis.
“When I saw the new owners get excited about owning the team and living the dream, that excited me and the team,” said coach Dave Tippett. “That made me feel good, and when you feel good, you can do your job well.”
From Smith‘s save on Pouliot, Radim Vrbata picked his fifth career hat trick, and the Coyotes captured their sixth straight opening-night victory on home ice.
While the Coyotes dominated the Rangers, they displayed the kinds of things good teams do to win. They moved the puck well, allowed Smith to see the initial shot, cleared the puck constantly from harm’s way, scored enough to win and received a dependable game in net from Smith.
Now, Phoenix faces a five-game road trip with stops in San Jose, Long Island against the Islanders, Detroit, Philadelphia and Carolina. They then return to play six of their next eight games on home ice.
Over recent seasons, the Coyotes experienced slow starts but tend to play better over the latter course of the season. In the coming weeks, they hope to reverse this pattern.
With video of the Rangers game slid neatly into the CD slot of their laptops, the Coyotes can review this game and point to elements of play they hope develop into trends.
Because the Coyotes' four-year odyssey about the hockey landscape is history, NHL commissioner Gary Bettman stopped by Jobing.com Arena before Thursday’s night opener to assure listeners the future of hockey in the desert is secure.
At the same time, he addressed a few league issues.
One focused in a form of a warning to Colorado coach Patrick Roy. Going forward, act and behave in a civilized manner, the commissioner hinted.
Just because the league left a $10,000 fine on Roy, who coached his initial NHL game for the Avs on Oct. 2, that’s not the end of the affair.
Following Colorado’s 6-1 win over Anaheim Wednesday night, Roy took exception to what he considered an unwarranted penalty against Nathan MacKinnon, the Avs' No. 1 pick. Unleashing a verbal ball of fire against Ducks coach Bruce Boudreau and attempting to dismantle the glass barrier after the final buzzer, Roy's behavior was ruled excessive by the league.
“He had a conscience-raising, and he’ll be fine,” Bettman said. “He gets it.”
Though Bettman said Roy is passionate and emotional, he expects the former Montreal goaltender to be on his best behavior and curb future emotional outbursts.
Mark Brown is a Featured Columnist for Bleacher Report. Unless otherwise noted, all quotes were obtained first-hand.
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