(Eds: Updates with more details and quotes. With AP Photos.)By JOHN MARSHALLAP Sports Writer
Battered and beaten down from a brutal stretch on the road, the Phoenix Coyotes reeled off 11 straight wins in February, knocking off some of the best teams in hockey.
The streak became the impetus for their current run, one that’s taken them farther than any other team in the franchise’s 33-year NHL history.
Article continues below ...
”When we went on that streak in February, we thought, `We can beat anybody now,”’ Coyotes captain Shane Doan said.
It’s sure looking that way.
Needing a big push to get into the playoffs, the Coyotes not only got in, they won their final five regular-season games to claim a tight race for the Pacific Division title, the franchise’s first NHL division crown.
Supposedly overmatched by the speed and skill of Chicago in the first round, Phoenix bogged the fleet Blackhawks down and survived five overtime games to advance in the playoffs for the first time in 25 years.
The Coyotes followed that up with an impressive performance in the second round, winning the battle of similar styles with Nashville to win in five games.
They capped the series with one of the most monumental days in team history, starting with the announcement that a new owner was in place and punctuated with a 2-1 win over the Predators that sent them to the Western Conference finals for the first time.
Next up is a nobody-saw-this-coming conference finals matchup with the Los Angeles Kings, division rivals who surprised the hockey world by becoming the first No. 8 seed to knock off Nos. 1 and 2 – Vancouver and St. Louis – in the same playoffs.
”I think the best part is so many people told you this could never happen,” Doan said. ”It feels really nice to be living this right now.”
It’s been a long road.
After moving from Winnipeg to the Valley of the Sun before the 1996-97 season, the Coyotes failed to win a playoff series in seven tries and didn’t get into the postseason seven other times.
They had to endure the team going into bankruptcy and played three straight seasons without an owner, constantly wondering if they’d be moving someplace else.
Perhaps the toughest season came last year, when the team was swept by the Detroit Red Wings in the first round of the playoffs amid rumors that the team was headed back to Winnipeg.
Heading into this season, the Winnipeg rumors were gone – Atlanta’s franchise moved there – but there still wasn’t an owner and goalie Ilya Bryzgalov, a Vezina Trophy finalist two years before, was no longer with the team.
Worn out by injuries and thousands of miles of travel in six weeks, the Coyotes appeared to be in trouble at the All-Star break, 12th in the Western Conference and seemingly in no position to make a run.
Even after they got into the playoffs, it still wasn’t easy.
In the Chicago series, Phoenix gave up tying goals in the third period four times and endured the first playoff series to open with five straight overtime games. The Coyotes also needed an extra game to finish it off, clinching the series in Chicago after losing Game 5 at home.
Other than a 5-3 win in Game 2, Phoenix had to grind out all of its victories against Nashville, including the clincher Monday night, when they shook off a potential distraction (the owner news) and another late tying goal to earn a victory that set off an unprecedented celebration inside Jobing.com Arena.
These Coyotes are a resilient pack, that’s for sure.
”This doesn’t happen by coincidence,” Coyotes coach Dave Tippett said. ”There’s a lot of hard work that goes on behind the scenes.”
The work has given the Coyotes something there hasn’t been a whole lot of recently: Optimism.
An hour before Game 5, NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman announced that a tentative agreement had been reached to sell the team to former San Jose Sharks CEO Greg Jamison.
The agreement has to be finalized, Jamison has to work out details for a lease with the city of Glendale and the sale has to be approved by the league board of governors. Still, after three years of uncertainty, it was a big step, reason to believe the drawn-out saga will finally come to an end soon.
Add to that a first trip to the conference finals, putting them four games from the Stanley Cup finals, and it’s a good time to be a Coyote.
”We firmly believe that we can continue on a path, a good path that has been started the last couple of years, and we want to build on that path,” Jamison said.
They certainly seem to be headed in the right direction now.