Maybe there is some salvage left in this season.
All but eliminated from a seat at the Stanley Cup table, the Arizona Coyotes made it a little more difficult for a team on the playoff bubble to gain ground. With a 2-1 victory over the Philadelphia Flyers before 16,002 Saturday, the Coyotes’ solid effort turned away the Flyers’ endeavor with incentive and motivation.
Receiving help earlier Saturday when the Penguins dropped the Red Wings, the Flyers skated into the desert with the hope of creating some separation. Instead, the Coyotes, strong back-checking and stellar play from Mike Smith between the pipes was the difference. After the defeat, the Flyers were left with a lost and empty feeling. At the same time, the Coyotes came away from the rink with a convincing feeling of self-worth.
If the Flyers entered this game in playoff mode, that sentiment was sensed immediately. The consensus in the Coyotes’ dressing room was one of matching the Flyers’ intensity, and players felt the atmosphere in the Gila River Arena was conducive to a playoff environment.
“They’re a desperate team and fighting for their playoff lives,” said goalie Mike Smith, who turned away 34 of 35 Flyers’ shots. “I thought we matched their intensity. I love these kinds of game, and this keeps me in the flow.”
Since his return from stomach surgery, Smith recorded his fourth victory of five starts. That includes allowing six goals in those five starts and drew praise. Noted coach Dave Tippett, “Smith was excellent, and I thought he deserved the shutout.”
The Game Winner
After captain Shane Doan’s power play at 15:37 of the middle period, which snapped the Flyers’ streak of killing off 19 straight penalties, gave the Coyotes 1-0 advantage, defenseman Michael Stone picked up the game-winner at the buzzer of the second period. His shot from the left side beat goalie Steve Mason with 00.5 left in the session, but Flyers’ Dave Hakstol immediately challenged the goal. Hakstol claimed Max Domi jarred Mason’s mask in the crease and interfered with his effort to stop the puck. After a video replay, the goal stood and the Coyotes skated off with a 2-0 lead after two periods.
Earlier this season, Arizona goalie Louis Domingue lost his mask when the Kings’ Tanner Pearson collided with the netminder. Domingue froze for a moment out of the crease, and Nick Shore promptly scored the Kings. This time, Tippett gave Mason a lesson about playing with his mask ajar.
“Louis said it best on the bench,” Tippett said. “He will not stop playing though his mask may be off, and Mason should keep playing.”
The result was the game-winner in a contest which featured a sprinkling of the old Broad Street Bullies. Known for physical play, the Flyers seem to antagonize the Coyotes at each move. During the course of the contest, a series of hits sent Stone and Doan to the dressing room for repairs.
“We want to get used to playing in these games,” Smith added. “If we want to move forward and be a playoff team, I think we need to match that intensity and match that work ethic.”
For the Flyers, this one was a missed opportunity. After that Detroit loss to Pittsburgh earlier Saturday, the Flyers had an opportunity to build space. Instead, they remain tied with Detroit with 85 standings points but have the final Eastern Conference playoff spot by virtue of a better record. With the Islanders defeating Carolina Saturday, the Isles moved four points ahead of the Flyers in the seventh spot. The Flyers have eight games remaining, including five at home.
“I thought we played well but didn’t get the result we wanted,” said Flyers’ captain Claude Giroux. “We don’t have many games left, and need to make sure all the players on the same page.”
At the same time, the Coyotes, while not mathematically eliminated from playoff contention, remain realistic. Players and coaches point to a strong finish and setting the bar higher for character, integrity and temperament. At this point, the team can get behind that old rallying cry of Brooklyn Dodgers fans, “wait ‘til next year.”