Stealthy sniper Ray Whitney has led league-owned Phoenix's improbable playoff run
Ray Whitney really blew his cover last Friday night, when he momentarily elevated himself from journeyman winger to hero. Whitney—who became perhaps the least heralded 1,000-point scorer in NHL history on March 31—scored the overtime winner in the Coyotes' 4--3 victory over the Predators in Game 1 of their second-round series on what he described as "kind of a mucky thing." Phoenix forward Martin Hanzal won a face-off at the right circle in front of Predators goalie Pekka Rinne and shoved the puck toward the slot. Whitney then darted past Nashville defenseman Shea Weber, stopped the puck with his left skate and quickly reached out with his stick to jab it home. "Ray saved us," said Coyotes captain Shane Doan after the game. "Huge goal for the franchise."
The win marked the first victory for Phoenix in a second-round playoff game, which includes the club's first incarnation as the Winnipeg Jets. For the cardiac Coyotes—owned by the NHL since the franchise went into bankruptcy in 2009 and rumored to be on the move ever since—it was the third time in their unlikely postseason run (they lead the Predators 2--0 after Sunday's 5--3 victory) that they had prevailed after allowing a tying third-period goal.
The 5'10", 180-pound Whitney—a former stick boy for the Oilers who once received a $100 tip from Wayne Gretzky—is 39 and playing for his seventh NHL team. The expansion Sharks selected him in the second round in 1991, and his work habits and training regimen have kept him around. There's nothing spectacular about Whitney's game, but he's a good skater with exceptional hands who has made a career out of being in the right place at the right time. "He was a small player who started playing in a big man's game," says Phoenix coach Dave Tippett. "There are players who are not sure what to do with their opportunity. He's taken the opportunity and run with it."
In 2006, Whitney won his only Stanley Cup, with the Hurricanes. This year he equaled his career high with 53 assists and led the Coyotes with 77 points. He admits to being out of step with the music his younger teammates bump to in the locker room, but he hasn't outgrown the prank of sneaking into the background of televised interviews and making faces at the camera. "I try to fool myself into staying young," says Whitney, whose resilient team has fooled everyone by staying alive.