MINNEAPOLIS – The Phoenix Coyotes have reached heights they’ve never seen before going back to their days in hockey-mad Canada, let alone their new era in the desert.
The Minnesota Wild have sunk to a depth that has become all too familiar in the “State of Hockey.”
Taylor Pyatt scored two goals and Mike Smith made 23 saves to help the Phoenix Coyotes clinch the first division championship in franchise history with a 4-1 victory over the Minnesota Wild on Saturday night.
Mikkel Boedker and Radim Vrbata also scored and Michal Rozsival added two assists for the Coyotes (42-27-13), who won the final five games of the regular season to leapfrog Los Angeles and San Jose for the Pacific Division title. The Coyotes had never won a division dating back to their inception as the Winnipeg Jets in 1979-80.
“For the first one in franchise history it’s obviously significant,” coach Dave Tippett said. “I really give the players a ton of credit. They worked hard, sometimes not under the most ideal of circumstances. They’ve hung in there and they are a great group willing to work hard, willing to pay the price to win.”
Dany Heatley scored for the Wild, who will miss the playoffs for the fourth straight season. Niklas Backstrom had a rough night with 24 saves on 28 shots.
“It’s an empty, disappointing, embarrassing feeling that we have,” Wild coach Mike Yeo said. “We have to use that, every one of us, as a force that drives us to be better next year.”
The Coyotes will play sixth-seeded Chicago in the first round.
The Coyotes woke up Friday morning one point behind Los Angeles and San Jose in the division. They beat the St. Louis Blues 4-1 on Friday night then took care of the Wild on Saturday night to close out an historic season for the franchise.
“It feels really special because you feel like when you get drafted by a team and brought in by a team that you have a job to do and your job is to win,” said forward Shane Doan, who was drafted by the Jets in the first round in 1995 and has been with the organization his entire career. “We were able to get one banner up. It only took 17 years, that’s not bad. But it’s nice to have something.”
The Coyotes won three of the four meetings against the Blackhawks this season, with one coming in a shootout.
The Coyotes got out quickly, jumping on the board 5:34 into the game when Wild defenceman Kris Fredheim made a lazy back-handed clearing attempt behind the net that landed right on Boedker’s stick inside the right circle. Boedker pounced and easily beat Backstrom over the left shoulder for a 1-0 lead.
Phoenix made it 2-0 at 13:57 when Pyatt corralled a loose puck in the slot with his backhand, made a nifty move to get the puck on his forehand and fired a wrist shot past Backstrom.
The Wild got off to a lethargic start, with just five shots on goal in the first 33 minutes. But they picked up the pace later in the second period, getting on the board when Heatley banked the puck off Smith’s leg and into the net to make it 2-1.
But before the Wild fans had settled back into their seats, Pyatt was back at it, scoring on a rebound over a sprawling Backstrom 31 seconds later.
Smith wasn’t tested often by the anemic Wild offence on Saturday, but made two brilliant stops—on Jason Zucker and Devin Setoguchi—on a power play toward the end of the second period to keep the Coyotes in control.
“Tonight was a huge win for our team and obviously a huge win for our franchise,” Smith said. “We’re pretty pumped in here, but in the same sense we have a lot of work left to do.”
Vrbata scored his 35th goal of the season on a slap shot through Backstrom’s wickets from a shallow angle just over a minute into the final period to put the game on ice.
Things looked promising early in Yeo’s first season, with the Wild surging out of the gates to an NHL-best 20-7-3 record. But injuries to key players Mikko Koivu, Pierre-Marc Bouchard and Guillaume Latendresse gutted the team’s depth and ability to generate offence, and they finished the season with 166 goals, the lowest total since the lockout of 2004-05.
“We have to face it, we’re not where we want to be and that has to change,” Koivu said. “It’s been too long that we’ve finished the season like this.
NOTES: Fredheim and D Chay Genoway were called up from AHL Houston for the finale to help a depleted defence that was missing Nate Prosser, who was suspended for the game after he head-butted Blackhawks forward Jamal Mayers on Thursday. … It’s the first time Boedker has scored goals in back-to-back games since March 24 and 26 last season. … Pyatt scored his first goals since Feb. 9, snapping a 17-game goal-less streak.