Photo: The Arizona Republic
GLENADLE, Ariz. - One of the great things about the NHL is the parity. At the start of the playoffs, every team has a realistic chance to win the Stanley Cup.
Take the Phoenix Coyotes. A team that people wrote off at the start of the season, the Coyotes squeaked in to the playoffs in the final days and won their division. And now, Phoenix is headed to the Western Conference finals.
The Coyotes defeated the Nashvile Predators 2-1 in Game 5 Monday night at Jobing.com Arena to win the series 4-1 and move on to the Western Conference finals against another unlikely team, the eighth seeded Los Angeles Kings.
"You love to see people rewarded for the work they put in," said Coyotes head coach Dave Tippett. "There's been some adversity here that a lot other teams don't have to go through, and it's very rewarding to know our players have put that on the backburner and just move forward and try to do whatever they can do to help us win."
This moment has been a long time coming for the Phoenix Coyotes, who have made the Western Conference finals for the first time in franchise history.
The game started an hour after NHL commissioner Gary Bettman announced that he was moving forward in the process to sell the Phoenix Coyotes to former San Jose Sharks CEO Greg Jamison.
It was another game that Phoenix had to rely on its goaltender and defense. Nashville outshot the Coyotes 33-17 for the game, but Mike Smith in net and the defense in front of him once again answered the bell with a spectacular performance.
"[The defense] has been tremendous," said Smith. "They've improved every game."
It was a scoreless first period between the two teams with Nashville outshooting Phoenix 10-5, although the Coyotes did start to surge later in the period.
Phoenix took advantage of that momentum three minutes and 54 seconds into the second period. Derek Morris's slapshot from the blue line flew by traffic in front and trickled in off Nashville goaltender Pekka Rinne to give the Coyotes the first goal in the game. The team scoring the first goal won every game in the five game series.
The Coyotes would score the next goal at the 15:09 mark of the second period. Kyle Chipchura broke into the Nashville zone along the right wing. He held up and found Martin Hanzal in the high slot. Hanzal's wrist shot flew past Rinne to give Phoenix a 2-0 lead.
Nashville was 0-4 on the power play tonight, with Hanzal and Coyotes captain Shane Doan each taking two penalties. But the Predators would finally strike with just under six minutes left in the 3rd period to put the sellout crowd of 17,182 on edge. Nashville's David Legwand threw the puck in front and it deflected off of Colin Wilson's stick and past Smith to bring the Predators within 1. It was Wilson's first goal of the postseason.
The Coyotes were able to ice the game away at the end, despite a furious push from Nashville in the final minutes. Smith nearly put the puck into Nashville's empty net, but missed the goal by just inches.
Phoenix will have some time off with the Eastern Conference semifinals still going. The focus shifts to the Los Angeles Kings, with Game 1 at Jobing.com Arena likely coming up this weekend. Both teams, have made the playoffs three years in a row, but this is the first time in that stretch that each team has advanced past the first round. Both teams struggled to stay competitive in the Western Conference throughout much of the 2000s before each team's recent surge.
"It's great that we are past the second round, but that's not what you play for," said Coyotes forward Radim Vrbata. "When you get a chance to be where you are, you give it your all and try to get to the finals and win it."
With two seconds left in the game, the fans at Jobing.com Arena started chanting "Beat LA." The intensity should be fantastic in the conference finals.