Jim Neveau, Coyotes Correspondent
Glendale, Arizona – The Phoenix Coyotes’ season came to a sudden end on Tuesday night, when Los Angeles Kings forward Dustin Penner netted the game winner in overtime of Game 5 at Jobing.com Arena. The loss put an end to the longest playoff run in Coyotes’ team history, but the reality of things is that it was a successful season by all counts, and even though the team fell short of their ultimate goal, they have plenty to be proud of.
After all, this was a year that started with some serious doubts, and not all of them were about the on-ice product. Sure, a lot of fans were asking “WHO?” when Mike Smith was signed to replace goaltender Ilya Bryzgalov, who was dealt to Philadelphia because the Coyotes weren’t going to pay him his asking price in free agency. Plenty of folks rang the death knell for Phoenix’s hopes of making the playoffs a third year in a row right then and there, but they’d be eating their words as time wore on.
Even more troubling was the situation involving the team’s ownership, which was left unresolved after last year when Chicago businessman Matthew Hulsizer dropped his bid in the face of stiff opposition from the Goldwater Institute. Even more troubling for Coyotes fans was that the league did reveal it was willing to let a Southern franchise move when they permitted the Atlanta Thrashers to relocate to Winnipeg. Throw in interest for new arenas in Quebec City, as well as rumblings of Seattle and Kansas City having interest, and you have a wonderful (all sarcasm intended) cloud of trepidation floating over the team all year long.
Even with Smith’s really solid play, the Coyotes still were scuffling along in a conference dominated by teams from the Central Division. As of January 31st, they had an unimpressive 52 points in 51 games, and it was difficult to determine whether or not they would remain competitive through the end of the season.
Then, just as soon as the doubters began to really pump up the volume on their criticisms, the team gelled and went absolutely lights out in February. They didn’t lose a single game in regulation during that month, going 11-0-1 over that span and winning seven games against teams who eventually made the playoffs, including two victories over the Kings and one against the Chicago Blackhawks.
The start of March brought everyone’s sudden infatuation with the Coyotes to a grinding halt, however. They lost their first five games of the month and six of their first seven, and suddenly the playoffs were once again in doubt. The team never lost faith in themselves, however, and thanks to what can only be described as a Herculean effort by Smith and the team, they won a slew of games late and ended up doing something no team in the organization’s history had done: they won the Pacific Division title. It was perhaps the biggest accomplishment the team had ever achieved, and if one was looking at the story of the team’s season, that would have been an appropriate climax.
Except the Coyotes didn’t buy into that notion.
In the first round against the Chicago Blackhawks, the team overcame questionable decisions (Raffi Torres knocking Marian Hossa out and getting suspended for 25 games) and a Blackhawks team itching to make up for the season before when they were eliminated in the first round. Despite most experts picking Chicago for the upset, the Coyotes stood their ground and won three times in one of the toughest arenas to play in leaguewide, including a shutout victory in Game 6 at the United Center to clinch their first series victory since they moved to the desert in 1996. Once again, the Coyotes’ fan base would have happily taken this as the icing on the cake of this season, but the team wasn’t done yet.
In their second round series against the Nashville Predators, just about no one picked the Coyotes to knock off Barry Trotz’s club, but that didn’t seem to phase anyone, and they dispatched the Preds with relish in only five games.
Of course, all of this is a story you know, but the fact of the matter is that it’s still just about as storybook as one team can get without actually winning a championship. Through all of the off-ice distractions about ownership and digs about the quality of the fanbase, fans of the team continued to believe in them until the very last goal scored on Tuesday night. Some will say that blind faith borders on delusion, but when it comes to the way that the fans supporting this incarnation of the Coyotes, it has to be said that they have proven that there are some very seriously dedicated hockey fans in the Valley.
Just looking at the sheer number of people who showed up at the airport the day after the Coyotes eliminated the Blackhawks provides a great example of just how dedicated the fans are to the team. Over 1000 people showed up just before noon on a weekday to support the club, and even though it wasn’t an ideal time to get a large audience, they did, and the team certainly appreciated that support all the way through to the end of their playoff run.
Now, the focus shifts back to the off-ice distractions and their hopeful resolution in the weeks ahead. The city of Glendale has approved a budget including a $17 million arena management fee to be paid to a new owner, former San Jose Sharks CEO Greg Jamison. The deal still has to have all the “I’s” dotted and the “T’s” crossed, but for the first time in the nearly three year bankruptcy saga that has ensnared the club in its clutches, the fact of the matter is that the light at the end of the tunnel is no longer a speeding freight train getting ready to take the team to Canada, but rather a brilliant sunshine that will herald in a new era of hockey in the desert.
In addition to finally answering those questions about ownership, there are a couple of other things that will need to be decided as well. For starters, will the team’s deep playoff run equal more butts in the seats when the 2012 season (hopefully, barring a labor stoppage) kicks off in October? Will the Jamison regime make good on its promises to make the team more marketable and to improve upon the state of Arizona’s growing junior hockey programs?
Those things will go a long way toward determining whether the team can be successful in Glendale in the long-term, but as for the team’s on-ice fortunes going forward, one need look no further than the aforementioned Blackhawks. In 2009, the Hawks made an improbable run to the Western Conference Final before losing to a divisional foe, the Detroit Red Wings, in five games. The very next season, with their core group of players largely intact (with the exception of Hossa joining the club), the Hawks rolled through the regular season and went on a blitzkrieg run through the playoffs, winning the team’s first Stanley Cup in nearly 50 years.
If the Phoenix Coyotes need to draw any inspiration that bigger and better things are indeed possible for this club, then they need look no further than this example. With Don Maloney at the helm, Dave Tippett still on the bench, and with an ownership group dedicated to putting together resources for the team to use in order to improve, there is no reason to suspect that this will be a one-hit wonder in the desert. Come 2013, the Coyotes should by all accounts be making a fourth consecutive playoff appearance, and this time, the sky truly could be the limit.