Division title within reach as Coyotes visit Wild
Never in the 33-year NHL history of the Phoenix Coyotes' franchise has it won a division title. Not as the Winnipeg Jets, and not in any of its previous stops in the Smythe, Norris and Central divisions.
Not even The Great One could lead the Coyotes to the top of the Pacific.
All of that would change with a victory Saturday night.
Phoenix visits the Minnesota Wild in the regular-season finale with a chance to clinch its first-ever division title and the No. 3 seed in the Western Conference playoffs.
Dave Tippett can become the first of the franchise's 17 coaches - a list that includes Wayne Gretzky for 3 1/2 seasons - to lead the Coyotes to a division crown after they beat St. Louis 4-1 on Friday.
Another victory Saturday would guarantee the Pacific championship.
"It's a division title but more importantly, it's home ice in the playoffs," Tippett said. "We've been talking about this for a long time, that we want to build to be a playoff team."
Things become more complicated, though, if Phoenix happens to lose. A regulation loss would drop the Coyotes out of the division lead, and the winner of the San Jose-Los Angeles matchup later in the night would claim the crowded Pacific.
An overtime or shootout loss for Phoenix and a San Jose win would still give Phoenix the division title. However, if the Kings beat the Sharks in regulation or overtime and the Coyotes settle for one point, Los Angeles would win the division.
Simply, the Coyotes have plenty to play for on the season's final day.
Mike Smith's string of three consecutive shutouts came to an end Friday, but he made 31 saves to win his fourth straight start. He's stopped 167 of 168 shots during that stretch and is a major reason Phoenix has a chance to make history.
"He's been so big for us," captain Shane Doan said. "We wanted to give him a little break. It was nice to give him more than one goal to work with."
Smith, though, is 0-3-1 with a 2.47 goals-against average in his last four starts against Minnesota, which is looking to end its season on a high note.
Despite the Wild (35-35-11) missing the playoffs for the fourth straight season, they've gone 4-0-1 over their last five games - all against teams that have qualified for the postseason.
Minnesota beat Chicago 2-1 in a shootout Thursday when Cal Clutterbuck tied the game with a deflection goal with 3:12 left in regulation, and Devin Setoguchi was the only player to score in the tiebreaker.
The Wild held the NHL's best record at 20-7-3 on Dec. 10, but they went 11-28-7 in their next 46 before their recent surge.
"A lot of what-could've-beens and if-onlys," first-year coach Mike Yeo said, describing the season.
Yeo, though, has been proud of how Minnesota has responded in the last five games despite having little to play for.
"It's a team that doesn't quit," Yeo said.
The Wild blew a two-goal lead in the third period but recovered to win 3-2 in a shootout March 8 in the most recent matchup with Phoenix after the teams split the first two meetings.
Minnesota, which has won four of six in the series, will be without two defensemen for the finale. Clayton Stoner is out with an upper-body injury, and Nate Prosser has been suspended for a head-butt to Chicago's Jamal Mayers on Thursday.