It was a partly cloudy, yet frigid day in Manhattan on Monday, March 24, 2014. The Coyotes were in town to take on the New York Rangers to begin a crucial three game road trip that involved three teams vying for playoff position. With the score tied at two with roughly seven minutes to play, Derrick Brassard of New York gets tangled up with Coyotes goalie Mike Smith, falling on top of his right leg backwards against his pads. As Brassard got up, Smith laid on the ice in agonizing pain. All the Coyotes could do was to sit and watch what could have potentially been an injury that changed their season.
“Mike Smith is no doubt our best player,” Kyle Chipchura said. “It is a big loss, but we need to pick up and trust our crew to step up.”
Thomas Greiss came in to replace Smith. Greiss had a 3-2 lead coming in, but that quickly turned around when he gave up goals to Dan Giardi and Ryan McDonagh in the final three minutes and overtime. The Coyotes ended up losing 4-3, but a 2-0 lead was erased yet again.
“The thing we talked about after the first period is we know they’re coming hard. You have to push back,” Coyotes head coach Dave Tippett said. “When we come out and turn pucks over and don’t compete physically, it allows the other team to turn it.”
So Phoenix went without their starting goalie, hoping that Greiss can help at least hand the team a few more points starting with the Pittsburgh Penguins. They had beaten them earlier in February 3-1, but Mike Smith was in front of goal and made 24 saves in a 3-1 victory. Greiss was going to start anyway avoiding a back-to-back start, but in a game where points are valuable, they could not afford to fall back.
It seems like Greiss took lessons from Smith as save after save his poise and position got so much better after a sloppy first period. Greiss let in two goals in the first, but managed to make 15 more saves the rest of the game, and a goal by Mikkel Boedker gave the Coyotes not only a 3-2 win and a series sweep of the Penguins, but two more valuable points that increased the gap from the Dallas Stars.
“I thought we were solid,” Tippett said. “For the most part, it was a hard road game. Greiss made some saves when he had to. I thought our compete level was very good tonight, and it allowed us a chance to win.”
A win over the Penguins also eased the pain forgetting that Smith was gone as they can only hope to sit around and wait as he was thankfully listed as day-to-day with a lower body injury.
“Last night is obviously heartbreaking for us,” defenseman Michael Stone said. “I thought we played a good game. We just couldn’t close, but tonight we managed to do that. So, that’s just building our confidence.”
But now with a date with the New Jersey Devils, a team that sits a few points behind the Detroit Red Wings for the final wild card spot, the Coyotes needed to close out the road trip on a high note. Sadly, another two goal lead midway through the second period was erased with Greiss allowing two goals within 10 minutes. But shot after shot against Greiss came save after save. He was flexible, acrobatic, taking every beating within the last five minutes and overtime. The Coyotes offense was quiet up until the shootout, with a shootout goal by Mikkel Boedker. Greiss made three incredible saves when Phoenix could not slip another one past Martin Brodeur. Another 3-2 win closed out the road trip, but more importantly, it gave them a five point cushion over the Stars.
“It’s huge,” Coyotes captain Shane Doan said. “We were disappointed obviously that we got that lead in the Rangers game with three minutes to go. We’d like to get those points. But we didn’t trail on the entire trip. We were able to find ways to get points on this trip.”
This now completely changes the playoff picture. While it is still not a guarantee that Phoenix will make it, they were able to now reach within one point from the Minnesota Wild for the first wild card spot. The Wild are in town this Saturday, but this now turned into a game with heavy playoff implications to quite possibly jumping over another team. All the Coyotes want to do is make the playoffs, but a chance to do even more damage would be great for a team that missed out from the year before.
“Our game, playing well, will get us one of those spots,” Tippett said. “If we play the way we can and the way we hope to; we just want to get ourselves in the playoffs.”
All the team asks for is for the fans to pack the house.
“It’s gonna be as close as playoffs as we can get,” Boedker said. “It’s in our building, so it’ll be good to play at home in front of our fans.”