Wednesday, February 17, 2016

Montreal Canadiens 2 at Arizona Coyotes 6 - February 15, 2016


The last game of my trip was the only one involving one of the Big 4 leagues. Now that I belong to Club 122, I'm not that interested in spending money and time on seeing places I've already been to, but when there's nothing else on the calendar, I'll make do. Such was the case on Monday night in Phoenix (Glendale actually) as the Arizona Coyotes were hosting the Montreal Canadiens.



I had been to Gila River Arena (named for a casino 35 miles to the southwest) only once, back in 2008 when it was Jobing.Com Arena, which has to be the worst name of any venue ever. That was before I started recording all my road trips on this blog, so I didn't recall much other than the Coyotes wore white uniforms despite playing at home. The only other time I had seen them in Phoenix was in 2001, before the NHL adopted the road white policy. Thus I had never seen the Coyotes dark uniforms until tonight. Was it worth the wait? Not really.



Anyway, the arena is located in the Westgate Entertainment District, right next to the University of Phoenix Stadium. It is right next to the 101 freeway, at Glendale Avenue. Parking is free in most of the lots, with the arena lying on the other side of a number of bars and restaurants. These were rather full on this night, bolstered by a strong Canadien cheering ontingent. After trying several spots and finding none with a seat at the bar, I ended up at a place called Hell's Half Acre, which enjoys several very bad Yelp reviews. A decent beer was $8, a bit high for Glendale but as I wasn't planning on having more than one, an acceptable cost. If you are planning to eat, I would advise arriving over two hours prior to game time to avoid having to wait at any of the restaurants.



In case you haven't heard, the Coyotes are struggling, averaging only 77% of capacity, good for 29th in the 30-team NHL. As such, there was a special on tickets with lower bowl seats going for $50 if you had a special code, which was freely advertised on Craigslist. With that code, you could also buy an accompanying kid's ticket for free, in other words, two could sit a few rows from the ice at a Habs game for $25 each. I was travelling alone and the seat I wanted was a single, so I didn't bother buying a freebie to test if the child ticket actually had to be used by a kid, but regardless, the special offer is a bad sign. I don't know how much longer the team can survive here, which is a shame, because this is a pretty good place to watch a game. Actually, it is the surrounding area that is pretty good (helped no doubt by the 85-degree weather); the arena itself is fairly typical.



There are two seating bowls, with two levels of suites along the sides, but only one level on the ends. Thus the upper end zone seats are closer to the ice than those that run the sideline, as you can see above. There are also suites in the towers on either side of the upper deck.



You can easily move between the two levels using any of several sets of stairs. The concourses are spacious enough on both levels. I didn't try any food, but there is a designated driver program where you receive a regular soda ($5.50 value) if you sign up.



The Coyotes have not had much luck here, so the only number on their ring of honour that doesn't belong to the original Winnipeg Jets is Wayne Gretzky's 99. Gretzky coached here for 4 seasons, compiling a 143-161-24 record during that time. There is no other history on display because, well, the team has nothing to brag about.



After the game, season ticket holders were allowed on the ice to shoot a puck at the net. I hung around to avoid the traffic, which looked to be mildly frustrating, though lots were empty after 20 minutes or so.

Overall, the Coyotes experience is one that succeeds because of the locale more than the venue. I say this as a visitor who enjoys the warmth; but many locals find Westgate less appealing. I'll have to come back here once more for the Leafs; I just hope the Coyotes stay around long enough for that to happen.

The Game

The big news on this night was Arizona goalie Anders Lindback injuring himself in an off-ice incident, so the Coyotes had to resort to calling in their emergency backup. Each team has to have a local goalie on call to act as the backup in the event that one of the two keepers on the roster cannot dress; for the Coyotes that is Nathan Schoenfeld, son of legendary ref-baiter Jim. I didn't even know this had happened until they interviewed Schoenfeld during the first intermission. Meanwhile, it was Louis Domingue (shown above) who started for Arizona. I saw him in his first NHL game last year in Ottawa as well as an AHL playoff game in Manchester.

The Habs have fallen on hard times since Carey Price was injured. After 25 games, they were 18-4-3 and first in the league; in their next 25 they went 6-18-1 and are now out of the playoffs. Awwww. Mike Condon has been tasked with replacing Price, and although he started very well at 7-1-2 and was a large reason behind the Habs early season success, he has since regressed to the mean, coming into the game with 8 losses in his last 9 games. No points for guessing which team he beat.



Arizona opened the scoring when Martin Hanzal deflected a shot from Michael Stone (below) past a helpless Condon just five minutes in. When the Coyotes score, a moon that resembles the Pepsi logo shoots off sparklers while fans howl, something I was to enjoy five more times on this night. Although Montreal tied it just a few minutes later when Dale Wiese scored after a nifty backhand pass from behind the net from Jacob De La Rose, Coyotes rookie Anthony Duclair notched a power play marker on a great feed from Hanzal to give the Coyotes the 2-1 lead at the intermission.



Arizona extended their advantage when Brad Richardson scored 8 minutes in but when Domingue let a seemingly harmless shot from Brendan Gallagher just 2 minutes later, it looked like a battle of the sieves. But that was Domingue's last mistake, and when Oliver Ekmann-Larsson scored on the power play shortly thereafter, the Coyotes had regained their 2-goal edge. Kevin Connaughton added another for Arizona before the end of the period to make it 5-2. At that point, only 31 total shots had been registered (18-13 for Arizona), so the combined save percentage was 77%, rather sievish.



Antoine Vermette scored the only marker of the third period as the Coyotes notched a season high in goals in their 6-2 shellacking of Montreal. After the game, the ice girls wave flags in celebration, another reason to stay until the end.



The line of Duclair, Hanzal, and Max Domi was very strong, and when Ekman-Larsson was on the point, they dominated. It was interesting sitting so close and watching how they were able to keep the puck in the zone for extended periods. Seeing Montreal lose is always fun, and this was a good way to end the trip. When I first planned this jaunt, I thought I would fly to Chicago to see the Leafs, but flights were too expensive. Glad I stayed in Arizona as the Leafs lost 7-2 after falling behind 7-0.

Notes

Home teams went 13-2 on the trip, the best combined record I have had on an extended trip.

Next Up

I'm off to New England next week for 3 NCAA hoops games (Boston U, Boston College, Maine) and the AHL and D League in Portland. Check back for updates!

Best,

Sean

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