Photo: Associated Press
Is there any doubt who the Phoenix Coyotes MVP has been this season?
Goaltender Mike Smith has been the man all year long, and he stepped up big time in Game 6 Monday night at the United Center, facing 39 shots from the Chicago Blackhawks and stopping them all, propelling the Coyotes to a 4-0 win and the franchise's first playoff series win since relocating to Arizona in 1996.
It was a big win for a franchise that has dealt with quite a bit over the last 10 seasons. Most recently, the uncertainty around the ownership situation and false rumors of the Coyotes moving elsewhere. But Monday night, all that was an afterthought, as a perserving Coyotes team beat a Blackhawks team two years removed from a Stanley Cup, setting up a second round matchup with the Nashville Predators.
"I'm really happy for a lot of the players that have battled through [in Phoenix], especially the last three years," said Coyotes head coach Dave Tippett.
But during the first period in Game 6, that series clinching moment looked uncertain. The Blackhawks pummled Smith and the Coyotes defense, outshooting Phoenix 16-2. Mike Smith was spectacular, keeping his team in the game when they were generating no offense.
"Mike Smith was really the story of the game for us," said Tippett.
Chicago continued to fire away in the 2nd period, and Smith made save after save. It was the Coyotes who struck first, finally taking advantage of a power play opportunity. Coyotes defeseman Oliver Ekman-Larsson buried a slapshot past Hawks goaltender Corey Crawford to give the Coyotes the 1-0 lead. Phoenix held the lead through two periods despite being outshot 28-8.
In the third period, the Coyotes offense started clicking and poured it on, leaving no doubt they would get the job done in regulation for the first time this series. After five straight overtime games, Game 6, the final one, was the only one to end in regulation.
The second goal came after a beautiful pass from Kyle Chipchura behind the net to Gilbert Brule who wristed the puck past Crawford.
The Coyotes then got a five minute power play after the Blackhawks Jimmy Hayes drove Coyotes defenseman Michal Roszival into the boards. Hayes received a major penalty and a game misconduct. Roszival also had to leave the ice. The third Phoenix goal came on the power play as Antoine Vermette put the puck home from the doorstep.
And Chipchura added the icing on the cake with the fourth Coyote goal of the game. His shot from the slot flew past Crawford, and just like that, the Coyotes were headed to the second round of the playoffs.
Smith was certainly brilliant, but what might be even more impressive is the Coyotes getting scoring from a number of different players. Radim Vrbata and Ray Whitney, both big scorers in the regular season, were not strong offensively in round 1. But other players stepped up and helped the Coyotes eek out wins.
"We count on so many different guys," said Phoenix Coyotes captain Shane Doan. "We count on guys every single night that make plays for us and contribute."
Phoenix, the 3 seed, will have home-ice advantage against Nashville, the 4 seed, in the second round, with the schedule to be determined. Both teams are very similar. They both play a tight defensive game with great goaltending, capitalizing on timely goals.
NOTE: Coyotes forward Martin Hanzal, who had been out of the Coyotes lineup since getting hurt in Game 2, was back in the lineup for Phoenix on Monday night.