After 33 years, Coyotes finally get their title
The 33rd time was the charm.
Following three-plus decades of also-ran finishes, the Phoenix Coyotes are finally sipping the champagne that eluded such franchise greats as Dale Hawerchuk, Teemu Selanne, Keith Tkachuk, Jeremy Roenick, Teppo Numminen, Nikolai Khabibulin and Sean Burke.
The vintage? A 2011-12 division title.
Gone are those bitter memories of Game 7 losses to Anaheim, St. Louis and Detroit. Gone is the detritus of the Wayne Gretzky-Mike Barnett years. Gone, for the moment, is the talk of ownership uncertainty.
In its place is a remarkable achievement that came against long odds: the franchise’s first division title in its 33-year history.
"We’ve gone through some trials and tribulations,” coach Dave Tippett told reporters after the game Saturday night. “There were some times when it could have turned the other way, and our guys grabbed it. We kept pushing along and we ended on a real good streak."
Mikkel Boedker and Taylor Pyatt scored first-period goals to remove the suspense quickly Saturday night as the Coyotes coasted to a 4-1 road win over the Minnesota Wild. The victory gave Phoenix the Pacific Division title before the Los Angeles Kings and San Jose Sharks ever dropped the puck on what became a largely meaningless engagement.
Just as important, the win gave the Coyotes the coveted No. 3 seed in the Western Conference playoffs and home-ice advantage against the Chicago Blackhawks in a series that will start some time midweek.
There is precious little time to prepare, and even less to celebrate, but the Coyotes took a moment to bask in their achievement Saturday night.
"It feels good," said captain Shane Doan, who was sporting a cap that read simply: Champions. "It’s a testament to everybody. Things haven’t always looked the best here, and we keep finding ways to win."
It’s a testament to Doan, too, that he hung in there for 17 seasons, waiting and wondering if he would ever experience this feeling with a roster always short on stars but lately long on guts.
"He’s put a lot of time and energy into building this franchise, trying to move it forward, so I’m sure he’s got a little smile on his face," Tippett said. "The organization should be very thankful for the work and effort and commitment he’s made to this group."
The organization should also be thankful for a coach-general manager duo of Tippett and Don Maloney that keeps pushing the right buttons and plucking the right values off the shelves. Goalie Mike Smith, who comes at a considerable savings over his predecessor, Ilya Bryzgalov, is hitting his stride at the perfect time. With Saturday’s 23-save performance in the books, Smith has now allowed just two goals in his last 16 periods of hockey, plus one overtime session.
"What a ride so far – and it’s just begun," Smith said. "Everything that’s done now is in the past. We have to move forward. It’s been a fun year so far, but as far as I’m concerned, nothing’s really accomplished yet."
Maybe not, but with the secondary scoring they got on their two-game, season-ending trip and with everybody save defenseman Adrian Aucoin healthy, the Coyotes are in an enviable position.
"We’re building to be a good playoff team," Tippett said. "We’ll have a few days to sit down here and analyze where we are and how we match up against Chicago."
Until the Red Wings scored two third-period goals to force overtime with the Blackhawks on Saturday at Joe Louis Arena – the final tally coming with just 47 seconds remaining in regulation – it looked like Phoenix was destined for a third straight matchup with Detroit.
But Chicago’s shaky defense failed it again, and that should give Coyotes fans reason for optimism. On paper, the Blackhawks look like a playoff train wreck. Their penalty-killing unit is ranked 27th in the league and has been an Achilles heel all season. The power play was one of the league’s worst over the final month of the season and finished 26th overall.
Goalies Corey Crawford and Ray Emery ranked 37th and 41st respectively in save percentage, a clear sign of their poor play and the team’s defensive shortcomings in front of them. Worse yet for Chicago is the uncertainty surrounding captain Jonathan Toews, who hasn’t played since Feb. 19 as he recovers from a concussion.
The Coyotes have never played the Blackhawks in the playoffs, but Phoenix went 3-1 against Chicago this season, and the ties between the two clubs run deep.
Tippett and Chicago coach Joel Quenneville were teammates with the Hartford Whalers and remain close friends.
Retired future Hall of Famer Jeremy Roenick played for both clubs, as did Aucoin, Coyotes winger Radim Vrbata and Blackhawks defenseman Sami Lepisto.
One of the game’s all-time greats, Bobby Hull, jumped ship from Chicago to help bolster the newly formed WHA and collect a million-dollar paycheck from Winnipeg that was unheard of in that era.
And then there are the tens of thousands of Chicago transplants who now call the Valley of the Sun home.
But that is all discussion for another day in a series dripping with intrigue and storylines.
When the Coyotes touched down at Sky Harbor Airport around midnight, it was time to honor a rare and well-earned reward.
"For the first one in franchise history, it’s obviously significant," Tippett said of the division crown. "I really give the players a ton of credit. They worked hard, sometimes not under the most ideal circumstances.
"They’re a great group that is willing to work hard, willing to pay the price to win. Hopefully, things turn out in our favor and we can continue to build this organization like it should be built."