Coyotes thrive on being the underdog

Thomas Greiss stopped 23 shots -- including all 15 he faced over the final two periods. (Gene J. Puskar/AP)

You wouldn’t have given the Phoenix Coyotes a prayer in Pittsburgh Tuesday, one night after losing their meal ticket goaltender and, eventually, the game at Madison Square Garden. They should have been gutted — an easy kill on home ice for a team as good as Pittsburgh.

But that’s right in the Coyotes’ wheelhouse, isn’t it? Haven’t we always underestimated Phoenix?

They were bankrupt; they were wards of the league… Then you look at the standings and see Phoenix a full six points ahead of Vancouver, the best Canadian team in the Western Conference. Hat in hand, the Coyotes are begging all the way to the Stanley Cup playoffs.

“It gives confidence that if you can win in Pittsburgh you can win anywhere,” their leader, Shane Doan, said.

Where does it come from? A team in a hockey hotbed like Edmonton has all kinds of wherewithal yet zero guts. And this budget-hampered desert franchise treats the half-empty seats at Jobing.com Arena to a ballsy game that Oilers fans would kill to see every night.

After walking into Pittsburgh sans Smith and beating the Penguins 3-2, Phoenix looks strong to make the playoffs for the fourth time in the last five seasons. That’s more than Edmonton, Calgary, Winnipeg and Toronto combined over the same period.

Smith, the Coyotes Canadian Olympic goaltender, was said to be “day to day” earlier Tuesday. We’ve seen what happened to the Maple Leafs’ psyche when their No. 1 netminder went down. Not Phoenix: “(Thomas Greiss) was phenomenal,” Doan said told reporters in Pittsburgh. “He kept the game calm. We’re fortunate to have him coming in to back up another really good goalie.”

That’s where we are now: that final 10-game stretch where everyone has injuries. It’s not about who is hurt anymore. It is about how strong the roster is that remains. Did you build a team that can handle a couple of key injuries? Or are you a paper house, unable to stand under the kind of adversity that comes when a top-three forward or top-pairing defenceman goes down?

The desperate Vancouver Canucks set off on a two-game road trip without Henrik Sedin (lower body). Lose both of their back-to-back games in Minnesota and Colorado and Henrik may as well take the rest of the season off.

A Canucks fan will look back at their club’s litany of injuries this season and find a reason for a barely .500 record. But the facts are, the Canucks aren’t even in the top five in the NHL in man games lost this season. Their problem isn’t their injuries. It’s the shallow scoring depth that can’t keep the ball rolling when the Sedins go down.

Take Detroit, which lost 4-2 in Columbus Tuesday minus Pavel Datsyuk, Henrik Zetterberg and a passel of others. Detroit has made up ground in the absence of their stars, while the Canucks have faltered. Heck, Vancouver could try being Phoenix, which doesn’t have a No, 1 goalie anymo… Wait a sec. Scratch that.

You think there’s pressure in Toronto to make the playoffs? How about Detroit, where no one wants to be known as being part of the team that snapped the 22-year playoff streak? That’s the sternest kind of pressure — internal pressure.

Since the start of the 1997-98 season, the Red Wings have won more games (854) than any other team in the NHL. One of those came earlier this year on that ridiculous goal that caromed high off the netting, off of Jonathan Quick’s back, and into the net.

Well, on Tuesday, what came around went around, as Columbus’ winning goal arrived on a highly controversial net-off-the-moorings call. Karma never forgets. Not for Detroit, and not for a Maple Leafs team that blew mighty hot in the season’s first half.

All those games the Maple Leafs were winning earlier this season while being horribly outshot and mostly outplayed? Well, that’s certainly coming home to roost now, isn’t it?

On Tuesday Ken Hitchcock’s St. Louis Blues toyed with the Leafs until Toronto scored a couple of late goals in what would end as a 5-3 Blues win. The scoreboard said “close game,” but roster for roster, this was men versus boys.

As Los Angeles won in Washington, Phoenix won in Pittsburgh, and St. Louis took its foot off the gas in Toronto, Tuesday night was just another illustration of just how far apart the two conferences truly are.

“We did what we had to do,” Hitchcock said of the game. “It was a 5-3 game where I think we could’ve scored 10 goals tonight.”