GLENDALE, Ariz. – Phoenix’s players spread across the ice like a fishing net, the forwards causing the tension up front, the defensemen pinching in for support just inside the blue line.
Leaving no room to escape, the Coyotes picked off pucks, sent them back in, kept the Blackhawks on the ice for shifts that seemed to go on forever.
It wasn’t constant pressure, it just came at the right times – enough to give Phoenix a 3-2 overtime win over the Hawks on Thursday night and a 1-0 lead in the best-of-seven series.
“I always go back to the icing rule put into place after the lockout – it’s a factor,” Coyotes coach Dave Tippett said Friday. “If you can get them pinned in there ... you can grab momentum in a game.”
The first playoff series between the Hawks and Coyotes will be decided by which team can dictate the style of play. The Hawks like to soar around the ice, score in bunches. The Coyotes have more of a pack mentality, playing fundamentally sound in their own zone and grinding down their opponent.
Phoenix won the war of wills in Game 1 by getting the game down to its tempo at the key moments.
Shaking off a jittery start in front of a raucous, everyone-in-white crowd, the Coyotes used their grittiness to keep the Hawks stuck in their own zone for an exceptionally long shift that led to the first of their two goals in the second period.
After giving up what could have been a debilitating goal in the closing seconds of regulation, the Coyotes had the Hawks reeling again in overtime, putting so much pressure on them that they repeatedly had to ice the puck just to come up for a breath.
Their opponent worn down, the Coyotes won it 9:29 into overtime, when Martin Hanzal tipped a shot by Adrian Aucoin that skittered by Hawks goalie Corey Crawford and got the hometown crowd howling.
“Most teams kind of play that way now where if you can have five-man pressure, you just seem to cover every outlet pass,” Aucoin said. “When you’re a D-man, you never really want to have a turnover in your own zone, so you ice or try to get out somehow or you skate it out. Our team is tenacious in a lot of those shifts where we just kept it in, and obviously that creates a lot of momentum.”
The Hawks had it early in the game and late in regulation.
Shaking off some big hits by Phoenix and the crowd noise, the Hawks were loose and free in the opening minutes, creating some long shifts in Phoenix’s zone and good scoring chances. The pressure led to a goal by captain Jonathan Toews 4 minutes into the game in his return after missing 22 games with a concussion.
Trailing 2-1, the Hawks again ramped up its pressure in the closing seconds of regulation, leading to Brent Seabrook’s tying goal with 14.2 seconds left that sent the game to overtime.
The problem for the Hawks was sustaining it.
“You’re praying the forwards dump it in deep so you can get off the ice,” Hawks defenseman Niklas Hjalmarsson said.
Part of it was the long change the Hawks had in the second period and overtime.
Their bench at the opposite end of the ice from their goal, the Hawks repeatedly had trouble swapping out players in those two periods, leading to long shifts.
The Coyotes had the same long shift changes, but had the momentum going at those moments, able to keep the Hawks pinned in, the only escape to ice the puck to the other end. Even then it was only a brief respite; teams aren’t allowed to change after an icing call, so the cycle would start all over for the tired Hawks.
Phoenix also is a fundamentally sound team, so its players rarely are out of position, making it tough for opposing defensemen to find avenues to clear the puck. Faced with mounting pressure and few options, the Hawks had numerous turnovers in their own zone, creating good chances for the Coyotes.
“That’s what it comes down to: keeping pucks out of our own end, not panicking ... not turn the puck over,” Hawks defenseman Duncan Keith said.
The Hawks have one day to figure it out: Game 2 is tonight in Arizona, where thousands more screaming fans and those pesky Coyotes are waiting.