Penner and Co. overcome woes to lift Kings into Stanley Cup Final
Dustin Penner scored the winner in OT as the Kings ousted Coytoes in Game 5
The Coyotes dominated early, but Anze Kopitar's goal gave Los Angeles a spark
Phoenix fell short, but can now revel in a run that caught the city's attention
What we learned from a thrilling overtime win that propels Los Angeles to their first Stanley Cup Final appearance since 1993:
All is forgiven. For much of the first 30 minutes, the line of Mike Richards-Jeff Carter-Dustin Penner played like a compilation tape of hockey blunders. Giveaways, lousy positioning, poor puck protection ... disaster seemed imminent every time they stepped on the ice.
Among their "highlights": Richards had the puck stripped off his stick at the blue line, then failed to close the gap on Martin Hanzal, leading directly to Taylor Pyatt's opening goal just 4:20 into the first; Carter put a lazy backhanded clearing attempt directly on the stick of Kyle Chipchura who then set up Marc-Antoine Pouliot's first goal in more than a year at 6:23 of the second; Penner did little more than float on the periphery of the play.
Darryl Sutter had enough and could be seen ripping into them on the bench.
And then everything changed.
The sloppiness? Gone. They started driving the net, with and without the puck, and the chances followed. Shortly after Drew Doughty tied the game at two midway through the second, Penner got his feet moving, found a hole and hammered a backhand off Mike Smith's pads. Cruising through the slot, Richards pounced on the rebound and wristed it behind Smith to give the Kings their first lead of the night.
The unit continued its strong play deep into overtime, before deservedly ending the series with a similarly hard-nosed play. This time it was Carter driving the net with Richards wreaking havoc in front of Smith. Carter's rebound bounced directly to Penner, who swatted the winner over the goalie's left shoulder at the 17:42 mark, sealing the 4-3 win and the result that the Kings deserved.
Full marks to Sutter for calling them out, and good on them for digging deep and finding a way to erase their earlier mistakes.
Special, and not-so-special Teams. Pretty easy to pinpoint where this game turned. It was all Coyotes in the early going as they swarmed the Kings with a gritty, persistent forecheck for the first 10 minutes. This wasn't just desperation. This was an audacious rip-off of L.A.'s own game plan and it was a marvel to see, a testament to both the genius of Dave Tippett and the skill level and commitment of his players.
With the shots 7-1 in their favor and the 1-0 lead as reward for their efforts, the Coyotes earned their second power play of the period.
Early in the penalty, Smith corralled a dump-in. With three teammates curling out of the zone, he had a trio of smart options to get the transition going. He ignored them all in favor of a long bomb pass to Shane Doan. The simple play gets the puck out of the zone. His led to an icing call and a faceoff to his left. Anze Kopitar beats Antoine Vermette on the draw and goes to the net, where he's in perfect position to deflect Doughty's point shot to tie the game with L.A.'s fifth short-handed goal of the playoffs.
After that, the Kings were a different team. So were the Coyotes. To their credit, they battled until the end, but they never quite recaptured that early rambunctiousness. And it cost them. Much like Los Angeles' power play almost sabotaged its chances.
Sutter pointed out on Monday that the Bruins managed to win the Cup last year without much success with the extra man, and to be fair, their own impotence hasn't hurt them yet.
But addressing the efficiency of a group that went 2 for 27 in the series -- and 0 for 25 in five-on-four situations -- has to be a the top priority in the week between now and the start of the Cup finals.
Right now the Kings struggle with a lack of speed and creativity, and an inability to generate clean entries. That was especially apparent tonight when they were handed power plays in the first minutes of the second, third and overtime periods. When the ice was at its very best, they managed to get a few shots on net, but never generated the sustained pressure that they needed.
Answering the bell ... sort of. There was no mystery why the Coyotes were up against the wall coming into Game 5. They'd scored just five goals in four contests and had received just one lousy point from a first-liner. If they were going to extend the series, they needed something special from Hanzal, Ray Whitney and Radim Vrbata.
They got it. The trio was all over the puck, throwing 11 shots at the net and probably generating almost as many quality scoring chances. Hanzal punished the Kings with 14 -- yes, 14! -- hits and they generated six of the team's seven take-aways.
But in the end, the lines that really mattered read two assists and a combined minus-3 rating.
Vrbata was the tragic figure of the night. He offered up his best game of the series, but is anyone on the Coyotes going to have a longer summer than that guy? He made the plays that set up Pyatt's goal, stealing the puck from Richards and then pursuing his rebound into the corner to set up Hanzal's shot from the slot to earn his first point in eight games. But, oh, the chances he missed. The early bid from the slot that was headed for the top shelf before Jonathan Quick miraculously got a toe on it? The second period rebound that he fired just over the crossbar? The wraparound attempt that just failed to find the opening to Quick's right?
A team's leading scorer can't miss on opportunities like those. He just can't.
They'll accept this loss as a group, but it's pretty clear where the blame for this failure falls.
Four blind mice. I'm usually disinclined to criticize the efforts of the officials. It's a fast game and it's impossible to be in the perfect spot to see everything. I have a lot of empathy for the difficulty of their job. Still, it's hard to believe they'll feel comfortable defending their work, especially in an overtime that saw five very questionable decisions that could easily have impacted the outcome: 1) no delay of game penalty after Slava Voynov clearly sent the puck over the glass on a potential icing call; 2) no call on what looked to be a high stick to the face of Hanzal; 3) an interference call on Doughty when he clearly had position and may, in fact have been held himself by Whitney; 4) a mistaken offside ruling against Doughty on a play that clearly stayed inside the zone; 5) no call on what looked to be a knee-on-knee collision between Dustin Brown and Michal Rozsival moments before Penner scored the winner.
You might be able to argue the last of those. Brown's initial point of contact appeared to be forearm to Rozsival's shoulder and he didn't appear to stick his leg out to hit the Coyotes' defender. Still, it was an ugly hit and if anything is going to be called at that point of an elimination game, it's got to be a dangerous play like that. The others, however, were the sort of mistakes that shouldn't be made at this level. And certainly not in this quantity.
The NHL won't comment on questions regarding officiating. We'll just have to wait to see if Brad Watson, Kevin Pollock, Jay Sharrers or Shane Heyer move on to the finals.
Bitter end. The Coyotes were miserable at the end of this one, and understandably so. There may have been more tension in the postgame handshake line than any since the one following the 1996 series between Detroit and Colorado after Claude Lemieux crushed the face of Kris Draper.
But all things being equal, there are a lot of worse ways to go out than this. The Coyotes don't have to wonder what might have happened if they'd only gotten a bounce here or there like Boston must be doing now, or if they hadn't run into a scorching hot goalie as Chicago surely laments.
They were beaten by a better team.
Tippett managed to wring every bit of skill, discipline and desire that he could out of this team as they earned a surprising Pacific Division crown, then went on to subdue the Blackhawks and Predators to earn their first berth in the conference final.
The Kings, though, posed an entirely new, and ultimately insurmountable challenge. Over the five contests, Sutter's boys proved themselves stronger, faster and more skilled. No shame in that for the Coyotes or their long-suffering fans. No wondering what might have been. Time now to sit back and revel in a remarkable, memorable and wildly successful season that finally took hockey off the business page and put it front and center of the sports section.
Phoenix may never be a great hockey town, but it has a chance to be a good one. The product wasn't always stylish, but a win's a win, and the nine the Coyotes earned this spring energized the faithful and caught the attention of the casual sports fan in a town that could use really use a bandwagon. It's no sure thing they get back to this point next year or even any time soon, but the Coyotes finally laid a solid foundation in that hole they first dug in the desert back in 1996. The trick now is to build up. To do that, the team has stay resolve a larger problem than the Kings.
Despite all the positive buzz, the ownership situation remains in flux until the Greg Jamison group actually puts pen to paper and hands over a sizable payment to the NHL. As long as it remains unresolved, and as long as the Goldwater Institute employs a sizable legal staff, there's a real chance that the Coyotes have played their last game in Phoenix.
But let's stash that talk away for another day. Today, both the team and its fans should take a moment to appreciate the amazing ride they just had.
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