GLENDALE, Ariz. – The end of the season hit the Phoenix Coyotes particularly hard.
After scratching and clawing their way deeper into the playoffs than they had ever been, the Coyotes were struck by the did-that-just-happen shock of an overtime goal that simultaneously ended Game 5 of the Western Conference finals and their season.
On the ice and in the locker room, they were bitter, angry, frustrated; at the officiating, the Los Angeles Kings, themselves.
Two days later, the disappointment was still there, only tempered by the sense of accomplishment.
A first division title in the NHL, three games from the Stanley Cup finals, a prospective owner in waiting—it’s hard to stay mad too long after what was easily the best season in franchise history.
“It did sting and it still does a little bit,” Coyotes forward Mikkel Boedker said on Thursday as the team held its final meetings and the players cleaned out their lockers. “Looking back, it’s obviously not the way you want to end, but looking back at the whole season, it’s a story that should be told all the way around.”
It was quite a tale.
Picked to finish near the bottom of the Western Conference, the Coyotes played with a prove-everybody-wrong intensity all season.
They overcame a string of injuries and a ruthless schedule the first half of the season with an 11-game winning streak in February that got them back into the playoff picture.
They won the final five games of the regular season to capture their first division title in 33 years as an NHL franchise.
They got past the first round of the playoffs for the first time in 25 years and kept going, knocking off two supposedly superior teams to reach the conference finals for the first time.
OK, so maybe it didn’t end the way they wanted. Watching Dustin Penner score 17:42 into overtime just seconds after Phoenix defenceman Michal Rozsival limped off following a questionable hit was tough to take.
Still, finishing three wins from reaching the Stanley Cup finals with a team that has no superstars, it’s hard for these desert underdogs not to feel good about what they accomplished.
“You’re going 100 mph and it stops, so that’s the frustrating part,” Coyotes coach Dave Tippett said. “But as days go by, I think we’re going to recognize that this was a pretty special group.”
It could be the group that sets the franchise’s foundation firmly in the desert.
The Coyotes have had a few surges in popularity, from when the team moved from Winnipeg to when Wayne Gretzky became owner and, later, their coach.
But in recent years, support in Phoenix has waned, in part because fans were reluctant to support a team they weren’t sure was going to stick around.
The Coyotes jumpstarted the fan base with their late-season push and the Phoenix area became infused with hockey fever as the team reached deeper into the playoffs, filling Jobing.com Arena with a “Whiteout” for every home game.
And with that enthusiasm has come the possibility of some long-awaited stability: NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman announced before Game 5 of Phoenix’s second-round series with Nashville that the league had reached a preliminary agreement to sell the team to a group headed by former San Jose Sharks CEO Greg Jamison.
The deal has a few hurdles yet to cross and there have been disappointments in the past, but there’s a feeling that this one will go through.
And should it work out, the Coyotes would finally break free of the shackles of being run by the league the past three years, giving them resources to keep their best players and bring in a batch of new ones.
“From I’ve been told, this is the most positive everyone’s been about everything,” Coyotes captain Shane Doan said. “The run we had obviously has helped and I really hope it gets done quickly.”
Once the ownership issue is solved, Doan will be the team’s top priority.
The only remaining player from the Winnipeg days, he’s been the face of the franchise and the heart of the locker room. He ended an agonizingly long wait with his first hat trick in 16 seasons this year and showed he is still a force on the ice at 35, pinballing opponents throughout the playoffs.
“Certainly, Shane is priority No. 1 once we get our ownership situation take care of,” Coyotes general manager Don Maloney said. “We want to keep Shane. He’s not going anywhere, if I have anything to do with it.”
Doan isn’t the only player the Coyotes want to keep.
Ray Whitney, who led the team in scoring at 40, will become a free agent, along with Daymond Langkow, Taylor Pyatt, Adrian Aucoin and Rozsival. Goalie Mike Smith, who became an undeniable No. 1 goalie in his first season in the desert, also has one year left on his contract and could start negotiating with the team this summer.
Adding Jamison as an owner would give the Coyotes the resources to keep the players they want and finally go after big-name free agents without having to convince them the team is staying in Phoenix.
So with financial and organizational stability, a solid core of returning players and the confidence that comes from going deep in the playoffs, there’s more optimism for the franchise than perhaps at any time since it moved to the desert in 1996.
“We put ourselves in this position, got to where we got because we deserved to be there,” Smith said. “We raised the bar now to come back next year in better shape and to be a team that fights for the division title again and hopefully get another run to the Stanley Cup.”
The foundation has been set. Now it’s time to build on it.