GLENDALE, Ariz. – It was that gaping divot smack dab in the middle of the Phoenix Coyotes' lineup.
It was the reason the Coyotes couldn't match up with the rest of the Pacific Division, the reason they were fighting for their playoff lives in the Western Conference. It was the reason Kyle Turris' petulant and protracted contract holdout and trade demands grated on fans like fingers across a chalkboard.
The Coyotes had a big, hard-checking center in Martin Hanzal. But they lacked a true playmaking center to match with their other offensive-minded wingers. Some who could win power-play faceoffs and turn them into goals for a unit that ranked last in the League in man-advantage tallies.
Daymond Langkow tried. Boyd Gordon, Kyle Chipchura and Marc-Antonie Pouliot tried. But a week before the trade deadline, Phoenix general manager Don Maloney got a jump on the last-minute shopping and caught Columbus Blue Jackets GM Scott Howson in fire-sale mode – bringing slick and savvy Antoine Vermette to the desert and using the second-round pick acquired by shipping Turris to Ottawa as the down payment.
"I went from a team that was going nowhere to a team that driving for the playoffs. I couldn't have been happier," said Vermette, who reveled in the excitement of a deep playoff run while helping the Senators to the 2007 Stanley Cup Final, but couldn't have been further from another taste in Ohio.
"You want to play meaningful games. You want to be part of that push."
Vermette's numbers down the stretch weren't eye-popping – three goals and 10 points in 22 games. But coach Dave Tippett's lineup tumblers fell into place with Vermette's arrival and his four assists in the final four games of the regular season help Phoenix side-step three teams and claim the first division title in franchise history.
"Anytime a veteran player changes teams it takes a little bit to get going," Tippett said. "But I think you're seeing the benefits of that trade in the playoffs."
Veremtte's skills, experience and personal preference for the bright lights are really paying off. After scoring four goals and collecting five points in leading the Coyotes to their first playoff series win in 25 years, Vermette is at it again against Nashville. He has three points in two games, putting up a goal and an assist while winning 13 of 20 draws in a 5-3 win over the Predators.
"He takes a lot of key faceoffs, plays the power play, plays the penalty kill … he's fit in very well with our group," Tippett said. "The other thing that I really like is that we have a lot of real good people in our dressing room and he's a great teammate. He cares about everything we're trying to do. He's fit in very well with our group."
The Coyotes are also getting the domino effect that all successful playoff teams crave – four lines of nastiness and grit. Langkow is thriving between Chipchura and Gilbert Burle on an energy line. Gordon teams with Taylor Pyatt and Lauri Korpikoski to check skilled opponents.
And Vermette, between Mikkel Boedker and captain Shane Doan on the right, is the perfect complement to the "Prime Line" of Hanzal, Ray Whitney and Radim Vrbata, a strong second PP trio and a reason why the Coyotes scored nine goals on Pekka Rinne and the Predators while sweeping the first two games at home.
Vermette has seen a bandwagon grow as it rolls downhill in Ottawa, when the Senators finally reached their potential and tasted playoff success. Now in Phoenix, with a team that is playing for its very existence and is literally owning a new group of fans with every win, going from a struggling team to playing an integral part in the headline story has him pumped.
"It's a lot of fun, a lot of excitement," he said. "I know it means a lot for this organization, and I'm very thrilled to be part of this right now. That's what playoffs do. Even in Ottawa there was the same thing, the more and more you win the more attention and excitement you create in the city and it was fun. So, hopefully we can keep doing this."
The Coyotes swept all three games in Chicago in the first round and haven't lost a road game in regulation since Mar. 15. They are 11-2 in their last 13 games overall and were 2-0 in Nashville this season and 4-1-1 in three years since Tippett took over for Wayne Gretzky behind the Phoenix bench.
Just one win in either Game 3 Wednesday or Game 4 Friday would put the Coyotes firmly in the driver's seat against the shell-shocked Predators, who were steamrolled by Phoenix's best game of the postseason Sunday.
"Confidence is a huge factor in any sport anyways, but when you know you can do it, it's a huge factor," Vermette said. "One of the keys is the way you can deal with emotion. It's a big emotional swing in the playoffs, and you need to manage those well. You can't get too excited. There's a moment for that after the game when you win. But after that, it's game time and you have to focus on the right place. I think that's been one of the keys to our success in the playoffs."
Author: Jerry Brown | NHL.com Correspondent
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