When Arizona Coyotes goaltender Mike Smith left his net to confront an oncoming Joe Pavelski breakaway, things could have gone south for the club rather quickly.
Like much of their night, the Coyotes saw a lucky break head their way. When Connor Murphy jumped into the net to block a shot and Viktor Tikhonov displayed a tenacious backcheck on the play, the team managed to miraculously prevent the puck from going in.
It’s hard to talk about hockey without talking about bounces, but the Coyotes–who took home a 3-1 victory over the San Jose Sharks to earn their 69th point of the 2015-16 season–have some St. Patrick’s Day luck to thank for their Thursday night victory.
It started with the first disallowed goal of the night for San Jose, a shot from veteran Dainius Zubrus that got overturned with Arizona’s coaching challenge just over 12 minutes into the first period.
As if that wasn’t enough, the Coyotes saw fortune fall their way again in the game after winning their own contested goal by Michael Stone. A second goal, this one scored by Chris Tierney, was disallowed for an offsides call by the refs without a challenge necessary. Add in the lucky saves on Smith’s aggressive play midway through a game, a deflected puck off Martin Jones’ glove for Shane Doan’s 25th goal of the season, and an empty-netter for Antoine Vermette and you get a win that certainly helps the desert club heading down their final stretch.
Having two overturned goals is certainly a blessing for an NHL team, especially one that can’t count out a potential playoff berth even this late in the season. For Arizona, though, having their two first goals against was both a blessing and a bit of a curse.
“It creates a weird rhythm with the stoppage,” said defenseman Connor Murphy, who finished the game with two shot blocks and three hits. “They score a goal, then you have to wait while it gets reviewed, then you play for a minute then it goes to commercial break, then you score and it gets reviewed, and each time you have to stop so it sort of throws off your rhythm early on.”
Complaining about odd play rhythm is certainly a bit of a nitpick to have, but it was about the only thing the Coyotes could probably find fault with during the game. With two overturned goals against, one good goal for that was challenged, and an odd bounce on the game-winner, nearly everything fell into place for the team.
That’s not to say that the Coyotes didn’t deserve to win.
Although they finished the game with the poorer possession stats, Arizona stayed surprisingly close to San Jose through the first half of the game–something the club considered a must heading into the contest against one of the West’s biggest powerhouses.
The Coyotes were on a two-game winning streak of their own, but they were coming in off two relatively easy teams to beat. Both the Edmonton Oilers and the Calgary Flames have suffered from everything from inconsistent goaltending and injuries to defensive lapses and possession breakdowns this year. Neither of the two teams Arizona had beaten coming into the game are in a position to see postseason action. In comparison, San Jose was coming in off of wins against the league-leading Washington Capitals and the playoff-bound Boston Bruins.
Keeping up with San Jose early on wasn’t the team’s only accolade. Goaltender Mike Smith, who has only allowed one goal in his last two games since returning from mid-season core muscle surgery, gave plenty of praise to the team’s defense in front of him.
“[The defense] wasn’t allowing many second chances, clearing the puck out quickly and helping me out all game,” said Smith in the post-game interview. “They’ve been huge in the last two games.”
Head coach Dave Tippett also gave the team’s defensive work praise following the win, but extended it beyond just the blue line.
“We do a lot of back-check drills in practice,” suggested Tippett, referring to Viktor Tikhonov’s strong backcheck on the Pavelski breakaway that Smith came out to confront. “If it helps us clean up Smitty’s messes during the game, that’s even better.”
Now that the Coyotes have taken seven points in their last four games, and impressively enough, have done so without top-pairing defenseman Oliver Ekman-Larsson. They can turn towards an intriguing finish to their March schedule moving ahead.
The team will play the Tampa Bay Lightning on Saturday night at home, then face the Sharks again in San Jose on Sunday before returning home for games against the Edmonton Oilers and Dallas Stars later in the week. That’s three playoff teams in less than seven days, including a rematch against San Jose on the second of a back-to-back in just a few day’s time.
If the Coyotes can take home some more wins in that time, they could potentially see postseason action. It’s not probable, as they’d have to leapfrog the Minnesota Wild and the Colorado Avalanche to even earn the second Wild Card spot. Still, they are only seven points out, so the possibility can’t be discounted just yet.
Whether they finish their season with the regular season finale or not, though, games like the one the team won on St. Patrick’s Day are part of what separate the 2015-16 season from the one just prior. For the Coyotes, that’s all that matters right now.