By Alex Mansfield
GLENDALE, ARIZ. – When Henrik Zetterberg’s hat-trick goal slid into a vacant cage to seal Game 2 for Detroit, droves of fans at Jobing.com Arena made a bee-line for the doors in that all-to-familiar “close, but no cigar” mass exodus.
This time around, though, the Coyote faithful weren’t turning their backs in disgust. After all, if there’s one thing this season’s ‘Yotes have shown, it’s that they refuse to go away. Just ask the San Jose Sharks, who narrowly pulled away with the Pacific Division crown after historically using the Coyotes as Western Conference cannon fodder – these aren’t last decade’s ‘Yotes.
So never mind that the West’s best defense got torched for seven goals Friday night or that the Coyotes relinquished their first home-ice advantage in more than a decade – it’s just fuel for an organization that’s making a living off deficits and doubts.
For what seems like the first time since the franchise’s move from Winnipeg, fans in the desert are approaching adversity with a refreshing brand of optimism and confidence. Players are taking the losses that once triggered brutal winless streaks and parlaying them into learning experiences. It’s quite possible the peaks and valleys of the past year could be the best thing to happen to hockey’s unlikeliest market.
“It makes a hell of a difference seeing them play good hockey,” said Ken Testani, a Coyotes regular for the better part of a decade. “We’ve had such a lull in team spirit for the past several years, but things are definitely more exciting than they’ve been in a long time.”
The big question for the Coyotes now is whether they can capitalize on the new breed of fanfare their record season has drawn in. The attendance is there for now, buoyed by a pair of playoff sellouts and a strong end to the regular season, but can anything short of Lord Stanley’s Cup manage to pique and keep Phoenix’s collective interest?
“We’ll find out next year,” said one anonymous ‘Yotes fan. “People didn’t really believe until they got to the playoffs. Now that they’re here, hopefully they’ll go far. That’d definitely help.”
For many long-time supporters, the passion this season boils down to being grateful for having a team to call their own. To the hardcore puckheads, this season’s results took a back seat to the overarching principle that hockey would spend at least another year in the desert – the unexpected success merely sweetens the deal.
“(Last summer) was a little uneasy, but I’m really happy to see them playing well now,” Testani said. “I’d hate to see hockey leave the valley. I think we have a lot of great hockey fans in Phoenix.”
The atmosphere inside Jobing.com Arena for Game 2 revealed a core of hockey-savvy supporters who not only acknowledged the subtle nuances of hockey – one of the loudest ovations of the high-octane second period came for a diving backcheck on Valtteri Filppula’s partial breakaway – but the magnitude and potential implications of a series victory over the vaunted Red Wings. After all, who better to play spoiler to the Dogs’ coming-out party than the Western Conference’s perennial post-season villains?
“Winning a playoff series would do a lot for this team,” one fan said. “And beating the Wings would be a helluva story.”