GLENDALE, Ariz. – Many Phoenix Coyotes players and coaches spent Sunday glued to their TV sets, eager to see who they would draw in the first round of the playoffs.
It could have been any of three teams, but appropriately it turned out to be resurgent Detroit. The Red Wings have the NHL’s best record since the Olympic break and are the two-time defending Western Conference champions.
So the Coyotes, a team that wasn’t given much of a chance all season, will play the familiar role of underdog again when they make their first post-season appearance since 2002 despite being the higher seed.
And that’s just fine with them. Coach Dave Tippett said Monday that it’s a role on which Phoenix has built its identity.
“That’s who we’ve been all year,” he said. “From the first day I got here, people looked around like ‘What are you doing?’ That’s how we’ve been able to thrive all year, so why would it change now?”
In Detroit, Phoenix will face a team that is 16-3-2 since the Olympic games and one that, once finally healthy, climbed from ninth in the West to the No. 5 seed in a little more than a month.
The Coyotes have been almost as good over the same stretch, going 13-4-2. They have won seven straight at home and prevailed in three of their final four games, the only blemish a shootout loss at San Jose in their regular season finale Saturday.
The Coyotes have home-ice advantage in this series, but they know they aren’t the popular pick given the Red Wings’ storied post-season history and recent surge.
“Nobody is giving us any chance once again,” defenceman Zbynek Michalek said. “I guess we didn’t do enough in the regular season. But at the same time, how can you go wrong with a team like Detroit with so much success and experience? Hopefully we can turn some heads again and surprise some people with good hockey.”
Key for Phoenix will be continuing to use the same us-against-the-world mentality and play as cohesively as they have all season, players said.
“We understand we don’t have any real star players. You look through our lineup, I’m sure it doesn’t strike fear in too many teams when they play us,” forward Daniel Winnik said. “We’re just good as a whole group, and that’s why we’ve been successful. …
“We just have to stay with the game plan we’ve had all season, be solid defensively and outwork the (other) team.”
Phoenix will also try to overcome its unspectacular post-season history. The franchise has won only two of 18 playoff series and hasn’t advanced past the opening round since 1987. It is 0-2 against Detroit, having lost in six games in the first round in 1996 and ’98.
This team, though, is better than any of the previous incarnations. Phoenix set franchise records for wins (50) and points (107), both fourth best in the NHL, as well as home wins (29) this season. The Coyotes won nine straight in March and 10 in a row at home in the middle of the season.
Tippett said he sensed early this could be a special group.
“Our second game at Pittsburgh when we played a real strong game – I’m not sure they looked at us as a very good opponent – but we went in and played a very solid game, shut them out (3-0) in their building,” he said. “For me that was a game the players looked at each other and said, ‘Boy, we can be a good team.’ As the season progressed, there were different games that kind of continued to build that belief system that we could win.”
And now they’re taking the same confidence into the playoffs.
“We should be a confident team after the season we had,” Michalek said. “We have the belief in this dressing room that we can beat a team like Detroit because we proved throughout the season we can beat those good teams.”