GLENDALE – I’ve listened to many hockey experts talk about the upcoming Coyotes and Red Wings series over the past few days and I’ve heard how important players such as Shane Doan, Ilya Bryzgalov and Ray Whitney will be to Phoenix’s bid to upset Detroit and move forward.
They are correct. There is no denying that trio will be vital to Phoenix’s success.
From my chair, center Eric Belanger is the “X factor” nobody seems to be mentioning.
Belanger, who signed as a free agent last summer, quietly played a key role in the Coyotes getting to the playoffs. In a season in which Phoenix lost center after center to injury, Belanger has been the constant, playing in all 82 games. He quietly set a career-high for assists (27) and chipped in 13 goals. On top of that, Belanger ranked 18th in the NHL in the faceoff circle at 55.3 percent, his plus-11 rating was third among Coyotes forwards, and he helped make every winger he played with, including Doan, more productive.
On Tuesday, I spoke to Belanger about his first season with the Coyotes.
“I had a blast this year,” Belanger said. “It went so fast. Me and my wife were talking about it. This year went fast. And when that happens, you know you are having a lot of fun. For me to be able to stay healthy and be a big part of this playoff push was a big part of it. The group of guys we have here is special.”
I asked Belanger to assess his performance. His answer was succinct:
“As a player you don’t like to talk about yourself,” he said. “But I felt my game was where it needed to be in the last month or so, and hopefully I can continue doing what I did in the playoffs.”
Game 1 of the best-of-seven Western Conference quarterfinal series is Wednesday at Joe Louis Arena. Belanger said he thinks the Coyotes will fare well.
“They’re a team that likes to play with the puck,” Belanger said. “They like to have control. Their defense is proactive. With our work ethic, I think we will match up pretty good with them. We know what we need to do to have success.”
He added, “I think we have a lot of depth. There is a lot of experience in here. We know goaltending makes the difference in the playoffs, and we have a great goalie. So, you never know what will happen. We played 82 games to be here. It’s a long, hard season, physically and mentally. Now there are 16 teams left and we’re one of them. We should be proud of what we did but it’s not the end of it. We want to be there for a long time.”
Belanger has played 37 NHL playoff games for four teams. Most recently, he played for Washington last season and will forever be remembered for returning to Game 5 vs. Montreal after taking a stick in the mouth and losing a handful of teeth.
“I knew I was in trouble, but what are you going to do? It’s the playoffs,” Belanger said at the time.
In addition to his on-ice skills, it’s an attitude like that one that will serve the Coyotes well in the postseason.