The Arizona Coyotes bench screamed into the empty void of Rogers Place, where an NHL postseason without fans is being played. The wait was finally over for the franchise, and a considerable one at that.
The Coyotes advanced to the Stanley Cup playoff quarterfinals with a 4-3 overtime victory to eliminate the Nashville Predators in Game 4 of their qualification-round series on Friday in Edmonton, Alberta. It was the first playoff series victory for the franchise since May 2012 — a span of 3,014 days.
“We were all sick and tired of the Coyotes being out of the conversation,” said forward Brad Richardson, who ended the game at 5 minutes, 27 seconds of overtime with a goal on the doorstep of Predators goalie Juuse Saros. Ironically, Richardson was a member of the Los Angeles Kings team that eliminated the Coyotes from the playoffs during their 2012 run.
The Coyotes and Predators, two teams known for their goaltending, played a surprisingly high-scoring series, with a combined 25 goals in four games. But in the end, one goalie did make the difference: Arizona’s Darcy Kuemper, who has faced more shots (163) than any goalie in the postseason and had a .933 save percentage in the series.
“Darcy kept us in. That’s the facts. They were peppering us. He let us get our legs under us,” said coach Rick Tocchet, who watched Kuemper make 15 saves in the first period. “I think some of the younger guys were a little nervous. He had a hell of a series for us. A hell of a series.”
Predators coach John Hynes acknowledged his play as well. “We couldn’t get the extra goal. It wasn’t for a lack of opportunities or effort. We just couldn’t solve Kuemper,” he said.
It was a 2-2 game in the third period when defenseman Jordan Oesterle scored to give the Coyotes a 3-2 lead. But the Predators sent it to overtime on a rocket shot from Filip Forsberg with 32 seconds left in regulation.
During the intermission, Tocchet will typically wait until the seven- or eight-minute mark to walk into the dressing room to address his players. But after the potentially devastating end to the third period, “I knew I had to get in there earlier,” he said. “Just to tell them that we’re back in this. That if we get a goal, we win the series. I just wanted them to relax.”
It was quiet in the dressing room before Tocchet spoke. After he was through, Coyotes captain Oliver Ekman-Larsson said, “You’re right.” The rest of the players started chattering, and that enthusiasm spilled onto the ice.
There were many unknowns entering the neutral-site “hub” in Edmonton for the Coyotes. One of them was how a team of relatively quiet individuals would react to playing in front of an arena of empty seats. It turns out that playing in the bubble has actually done wonders for their chemistry.
“I saw another element in this play-in for our team. I saw some of our guys that are usually a little quiet step outside their comfort zone,” Tocchet said. “And I try not to bark that much, but I probably barked more. I think it’s just the environment.”
Tocchet has both coached and played for the Coyotes, a franchise that hasn’t lacked for off-ice drama through the years. There was a bankruptcy, a near relocation, failed attempts to fund a new arena and other financial difficulties. They had another controversy right before the playoffs when general manager John Chayka quit as the team was headed to the Edmonton bubble, unhappy with team ownership’s decision to restrict him from taking a new job with the New Jersey Devils.
Like they have throughout the years, the Coyotes shut out the noise.
“We had a discussion [about it]. We had to put it behind us. None of the guys in the room or the coaches and control what happens behind the scenes,” Richardson said. “We’ve had no lack of controversy and things going on, but all the guys did a great job of honing in. We felt like we had the team to do it.”