Nightmare Week Scuttles Coyotes’ Cup Dreams

(Matt Kartozian-US PRESSWIRE)

No matter what, this wasn’t about the officiating. Dave Tippett and his 22 players are holding the bag today after the mountain of expectations that built up over the 2012 playoffs around the Phoenix Coyotes collapsed last night, and that does not rest on one blown call.

It became clear last Friday that my writing of the Phoenix Coyotes’ 2012 playoff obituary was no longer a matter of if, but a matter of when.

The Kings went up 3-0 in the series that night, but they didn’t embarrass the Coyotes in the process. They didn’t ridiculously outplay them. In fact, if you look at stats (other than shots, in which the Kings held a ridiculous 177-107 advantage over 5 games), this series was mostly even from start to finish, in terms of blocks, special teams, and save percentage.

But the words on everyone’s lips were “L.A.” They still are “L.A.” You think of all Phoenix’s finished checks and getting pucks out of their zone, and the continuing supply of standup saves from Smith (46 last night!), and you can’t help but admire the tenacity and resistance the ‘Yotes put up to prevent this series from being a cake walk.

On paper, though, five games still is a cake walk, which is why the turd polishing stops here. In the end, Phoenix coughed up a 3-0 lead, which is hockey’s equivalent of falling out of a plane with no parachute. You could technically survive, but probably not – the odds are so bad that it’s depressing to even contemplate it.

That’s why Phoenix’s million small-victories in a game heroics that took them to the Conference Final didn’t cut it this time. That’s why they couldn’t make it to the Stanley Cup final. They’d make a bit of headway to keep their head barely above water in a game or in this series, only to get their back broken again and again by Brown, or Carter, or Richards, or Kopitar, or Doughty. And twice by Dwight King, whose name had received exactly zero seconds of air play on the hockey pundit desks of North American TV as recently as…March. Unfortunately for Phoenix, these are the players that defined the series, stuck in spectators’ minds, and delivered wins. Meanwhile, Phoenix offence regulars Vermette, Vrbata, Whitney all failed to find the back of the net, and Langkow and Boedker only connected once each. The balanced scoring was all done by three key players: Shane Doan, Shane Doan, and Shane Doan.

Shane Doan/Photo by Elliot - Wikimedia Commons

This is why for three weeks now Phoenix has faded into the background, and no conversation of hockey has occurred in North America without the breathless muttering of the letters “L.A.”

The Kings encountered more resistance from the ‘Yotes than their previous two opponents, but still made Phoenix chase them around with dismal results. Phoenix’s unlikely and unorthodox recipe for success this year, for which they deserve full credit, met its match in Los Angeles. Shane Doan, furious as he was, conceded that L.A. earned their trip to the final, as a proper leader should. It wasn’t easy for him because of the ridiculous theatrics in overtime last night on both sides, and his team’s ugliest possible ending, standing around stunned at a ref’s blown call while the play has restarted and the season ending goal is scored.

That finish, unfortunate as it was, remained perfectly legal and it does the ‘Yotes great discredit to talk about it today. There are no appealing officials’ on-ice decisions. Emotions were high, and knee on knees sadly do happen. They are not treated the same as their lower-blow cousin, the head shot, for a reason.

Drew Doughty didn’t do his team any favours either with his petulant outburst on the interference call he received at 10:26 of OT. A tirade like that would have spilled into the post-game and beyond had the Kings lost, and he’s lucky he didn’t face additional reprisal for his screaming and stick smashing.

There is no need to devote analysis to the officiating, for the simple reason that it is a moot point once it happens and the constant calling constantly into question of calls is corroding the integrity of the game. (Seriously – coaches and players scream and jump up and down when calls don’t go their way as if they are on side of the worst injustice in history, then give the dumbfounded look and the innocent shrug when their own guys get off scot-free)

There is only one reality now: Phoenix’s decline in fortunes that happened over the past two weeks leaves them facing a particularly cruel post-playoff hangover today. The team, and the media who covers them, should not rub salt in the wound creating spectres of biased reffing. It’s time to move on and do what every time does after a series OT loss: take a good hard look at itself.

Conference Finalists are usually the most confident in the NHL’s annual 29-team pool of losers and usually feel that with a tweak here, a signing there, and maybe a personnel change or two, they will challenge the next year. Not only does that often end up being dead wrong (see – Vancouver Canucks, San Jose Sharks), it creates hasty behavior to address needs that likely won’t be there next year. The most absurd example of this is Vancouver trading for Zack Kassian to have a big, nasty forward who could match up with Milan Lucic. Nobody told the GM that that series happened last year.

So the Coyotes have a lot to start with and don’t need to tamper with too much of it: Captain, D-men, and goalie under contract, and young blue-chip talent now with playoff experience. The summer will provide plenty of time to examine all that in more detail. It is apparent that a little more high-flight firepower might help – some forwards more explosive than say, Martin Hanzal or Radim Vrbata – but this team doesn’t have the financial resources to address that. Don Maloney won’t trade young talent either, and he is right to take that stance.

The biggest question mark this off-season, which I have purposefully avoided these playoffs, is the ownership situation. Those two words make the Coyotes players’ eyes gloss over; they can’t do anything about it and don’t do themselves any favours getting mixed up in it. It is depressing, but we will see some real answers – soon.

The inexplicable bluster and posturing of Bettman on this file, most recently with his latest “saviour” owner, doesn’t change anything. This article tells you all you need to know about a situation that has been made to seem more complicated than it actually is after three years of non-stop coverage. Here’s what it comes down to: the Glendale taxpayer is going to be asked to subsidize a hockey team through property taxes and sales taxes. This in a city that is located in one of the biggest casualties of the U.S. housing market collapse and subsequent weak economy, the State of Arizona. A city that has had to lay off municipal workers and impose cutbacks is going to keep subsidizing a hockey team that can’t even sell out Game 5 of the Conference Final? The numbers in the article speak for themselves. This team, even with its low payroll, cannot experience a positive-cash flow season in its current location by any stretch of the imagination.

It is hard to know just how many pretzel twists Bettman will have to execute to reverse himself on these ridiculous numbers he’s been defending. All I know is the Phoenix Coyotes, today, must be celebrated and congratulated. The team is also a lesson of how to efficiently and prudently run a hockey team in the parity/lockout environment. So before being derided for the millionth time because they’re subsidized by the league, Phoenix deserves credit for teaching fans a lot about how special a team can be this summer. As for the players, other than Captain Doan who clearly does not want to imagine a future outside the desert, the drama is not over. Because of their peculiar location, they will have to sit on the edge of their seats all summer as well. Just like they did through the playoffs, but sadly, the question is no longer whether they will win the 2012 Stanley Cup.