GLENDALE, Ariz. – The Phoenix Coyotes’ storybook season has landed them in the playoffs for the first time since 2002, and the best could be yet to come.
The Coyotes, still owned by the NHL after going through protracted bankruptcy proceedings last summer, clinched the post-season spot earlier in the day when Calgary lost to Boston, then celebrated with a 6-2 victory over the Colorado Avalanche on Saturday night.
“It’s special for us as a team,” said captain Shane Doan, with the club since it moved from Winnipeg in 1996. “Obviously there were a lot of doubts coming into this season by a lot of people. It’s nice to answer those doubts and have an opportunity to do even better than that.”
Four of Phoenix’s goals came from players who joined the team at the March 3 trade deadline – Lee Stempniak, Wojtek Wolski and Derek Morris.
In front of a raucous, packed house, Stempniak scored twice in the third period, giving him 12 goals in 12 games since he arrived from Toronto, including four two-goal games.
“I’ve only been here a short time but the character in the locker room is unlike anything I’ve ever seen from another team I’ve been,” he said. “Everyone knows their role and embraces it.”
Former Coyotes forward Kevin Porter scored for the Avalanche, his first goal of the season.
Phoenix, already with the franchise record for points in a season, joined Washington and San Jose as the only teams to reach 100 this season.
The players came out on the ice to thank the crowd when it was over. It’s the size and attitude of the crowd that impressed first-year coach Dave Tippett the most.
“The growth of the fan base and the growth of the energy in the building from where we started in the fall to where we are now is remarkable,” he said, “and it’s a real credit to the players, to how hard they’ve committed themselves to play and it’s a real credit to the fans that they’ve recognized that and they’re coming and having fun at the games.”
The Avalanche are eighth in the Western Conference, six points ahead of ninth-place Calgary.
Taylor Pyatt had a goal and an assist and Vernon Fiddler added a short-handed, empty-net goal as Phoenix matched its highest-scoring game of the season.
“I think it’s safe to say that our best players weren’t our best players,” Colorado coach Joe Sacco said. “They know that and they need to be better. For us to be consistent, that has to happen.”
Stempniak’s 25th goal came after a faceoff in the Colorado end, putting the Coyotes ahead 4-2 just under five minutes into the final period in front of a crowd of 17,188 – Phoenix’s second home sellout in a row. He added a power-play goal moments later.
“It’s one of those things where I’m just getting chances, and fortunately they’re going in,” he said. “I’m just trying to go to the right areas and shoot the puck and keep riding the momentum.”
Wolski, who came to Phoenix from Colorado for Peter Mueller and Porter, scored the deciding goal against his former teammates in his first game with the Coyotes. He came through again.
His goal, which put Phoenix ahead 2-1, was set up on a point-blank block by Coyotes goalie Ilya Bryzgalov. Phoenix rushed the puck to the Avalanche end, and Wolski wristed in a shot from the left circle, his 22nd goal of the season and fifth since he joined the Coyotes.
Mueller, who has five goals and 10 assists since the trade, sat out the game because of a hip injury.
Pyatt’s wicked wrister slipped past goalie Craig Anderson to make it 3-1 with 9:25 to play in the second period.
The Avalanche cut it to 3-2 when Milan Hedjuk scored his 22nd goal of the season on a deflected shot with just 35 seconds left in the second.
Anderson gave up five goals before he was lifted, but he wasn’t the only one responsible.
“We’re not playing well enough as a team right now and that’s the bottom line,” he said. “Yeah, I’d like a goal back here or there, but the bottom line is we can’t be giving up two-on-ones and three-on-twos and expect to win hockey games.”
NOTES: Phoenix split the season series with Colorado 2-2 and has at least a .500 record against the top eight teams in the West. … The Coyotes tied the franchise record for home wins at 27, set in 2001-02. … Robinson tied Patrick Roy’s franchise record for most appearances by a goalie with 65 and broke Roy’s record of minutes played. … Phoenix had lost two in a row after its franchise-record, nine-game winning streak.