A thing I predicted: The Coyotes would make the playoffs. You could also file that under “A thing everyone on the planet thought was lunacy.”
And certainly, I get why. People looked at the Coyotes, who made very few “impact” personnel changes in the offseason (and by “very few,” I clearly mean zero) and in fact took on almost nothing but bad salary in the form of other teams’ unwanted contracts, and saw what they saw last year. Phoenix was a bad team by any metric, one that often seemed not only lost but beyond rudderless to boot, and so the fact that they added contracts that seemed to have negative value to an already-woeful lineup seemed the last shovelful of dirt on the whole Hockey In the Desert experiment, and, most would argue, with good reason.
But people, I think, forget that the Coyotes last year had more than a few stretches of five or six games where they didn’t look completely awful, like they needed just one little something to be a pretty okay team (they split the season series with the Presidents’ Trophy-winning Sharks, for example), and nothing ever came along to shove them in that direction. They had a decent mix of good veterans and promising young players. They had a reasonable combination of skill, size and speed. Apart from their inability to play hockey as though they were in any way a team, they were a pretty good hockey team.
And one thing is different between last year and this, isn’t it? They don’t have the worst coach in the NHL behind their bench any more. Wayne Gretzky was TERRIBLE. His reign in Phoenix was, unequivocally, a complete disaster. In his four years as their head coach, the Coyotes finished 23rd, 29th, 23rd and 25th. An average of 77.5 points in a four-year window when the league average for points was 91. Granted, this success is admittedly early — and they have a long way yet to go — but did you SEE the number they did on the defending Stanley Cup Champions with their impressive 3-0 win tonight? It was a master class in road hockey.
The Penguins had one Grade-A chance all night, maybe. It was a half-breakaway in the second period, and the defenseman did a good job of getting back and steering the attacking Penguin (whose identity I cannot remember for the life of me) almost to the goal line before he could attempt a shot, which Ilya Bryzgalov dealt with easily. The Penguins certainly didn’t see enough rebounds to even get a second whack at the puck in almost every instance. Bryzgalov either held it or the defense swept it to center before any problems could arise.
The credit for this brilliant performance, of course, goes to Dave Tippett, who was inexplicably relieved of his duties in Dallas last summer in spite of a spate of freakish injuries to his star talent. Tippett, of course, is famous for just this kind of game, extraordinary defensive efforts against teams that, by right, should outclass the one he runs. All things being equal, Sid Crosby should have had three points tonight. Evgeni Malkin should have, were there justice in the world, walked out with a hat trick. But Tippett’s boys executed his gameplan perfectly.
But Malkin was almost a non-issue, and the only time Crosby’s name got mentioned was when he took one of his stupid crybaby penalties out of complete frustration. (That last sentence, by the way, is sure to get me some hate mail from Penguins fans, so let me explain. I really like Sidney Crosby, but when he get dispossessed of the puck and then slashes the player who took it from him, or spears the defenseman that he felt hit him too hard, that’s a stupid crybaby penalty, and it does nothing to assuage those who view him as nothing but an insolent, entitled whiner. This kind of weaksauce frontier justice doesn’t fly when you and your team are playing like garbage, Sid.) The Penguins were goaded, through simple control of the game, into taking too many penalties. Did you think you’d live in a world where the Penguins were outshot by the Coyotes 25-24?
And okay, it’s the second game of the season, but they’ve outscored the opposition 9-3. Where’s that production come from? Where’s Radim Vrbata getting these five points? What happened to the Coyotes everyone thought were going to finish dead last in the conference?
Turns out all they needed was a coach who kept his head in the game instead of… elsewhere.
Vancouver 7, Montreal 1
I had only a passing interest in this game, because really, how many times can you see Roberto Luongo embarrass himself before you tire of it? I didn’t get to find out, because as it happens, the one thing the Canucks needed to get off the schneid was to play a garbage Eastern Conference team that couldn’t deal with its size, board dominance, and physicality. Enter Montreal, exit pathetic performances. Seven freaking goals? Eight points for the Sedin-Sedin-Burrows line. Three points for Ryan Kesler. Two for Christian Ehrhoff. It was like they’d been saving their last three games’ worth of good play for this one (not exactly a winning strategy). Either that or Montreal really sucks.