PHOENIX – The Phoenix Coyotes touched down on a hot day in the desert and groggily wandered toward the tarmac.
The cobwebs quickly shook away when they walked down the stairs from the back of the team’s massive plane and saw what was waiting for them: Hundreds of fans just outside the gate, holding signs, chanting, even howling after the team’s triumphant return from Chicago.
The Coyotes are playoff winners for the first time in 25 years and have made hockey relevant again in the Valley of the Sun.
“It’s unbelievable,” Coyotes goalie Mike Smith said Tuesday as fans chanted “Smitty!” over his shoulder. “It’s been a heck of a ride so far and our fans have been right there with us all the way. It’s been very enjoyable and we still have a lot of work to do.”
The Coyotes have already accomplished more than any other team in franchise history.
Despite playing without an owner for the third straight season and a roster filled with gritty non-star players, Phoenix won its final five games of the regular season to capture the Pacific Division, the first division crown in the team’s 33-year NHL history.
The Coyotes followed that up by surviving a grueling series with the Chicago Blackhawks, a team that won the Stanley Cup just two years ago.
After five straight overtime games to open the series, an NHL first since the 1951 Stanley Cup finals, Phoenix finished with a flourish, rolling over the Blackhawks 4-0 in Game 6 Monday night behind Smith’s wall-like defence.
By winning the series 4-2, the Coyotes advanced to the second round of the playoffs for the first time since 1987, when the team was still called the Winnipeg Jets, and in eight tries since moving to the desert in 1996.
Battered, bruised and exhausted, most of the players slept on the flight home from Chicago. But they broke into smiles as they clambered off the plane and got a reception that seemed more fitting for a championship than for a first-round victory.
“There’s lots of excitement in the playoffs, that goes without saying,” Coyotes coach Dave Tippett said, raising his voice as the fans chanted behind him. “It’s a fun time of year and I’m glad the players who haven’t had this experience get to experience it.”
One of those players is forward Shane Doan.
The lone remaining player from the Winnipeg days, Phoenix’s captain had endured numerous heartbreaks over his 17 seasons with the franchise, including consecutive losses in the first round to the Detroit Red Wings the past two seasons.
The Doaner had a season to remember in 2011-12, earning his first hat trick—on a last-second shot—in 1,161 games, his first division title and a trip to the second round for the first time.
“It’s unbelievable the run we went on,” Doan said. “We talked about it at the beginning of the year about kind of taking the next step and making some noise in the playoffs. This is the first step and we’ve got some big ones yet.”
The next one will be against the Nashville Predators, another team that rode superb goaltending to a somewhat-surprising opening-round victory in the playoffs.
Nashville became the first team to clinch a spot in the second round by knocking off Detroit, an annual favourite to win the Stanley Cup, beating the Red Wings in five games behind Pekka Rinne. The 6-foot-5 Finn led the NHL with 43 wins and was superb against the talent-everywhere Red Wings, holding them to nine goals in five games.
With Rinne vs. Smith on the marquee, goals could be even harder to come by in the next series.
A big question mark for the Coyotes heading into the season, Smith proved more than capable of being a No. 1 goalie, setting career marks in pretty much every category. He was stellar against the Blackhawks, except for a few last-second goals in regulation, and was at his best in the clinching game.
With Chicago coming at him like a swarm of bees, Smith stood his ground and swatted everything back through a furious first 30 minutes. Even after Oliver Ekman-Larsson scored in the second period, Smith had to stay sharp to keep Phoenix ahead and away from another potential overtime.
He did it, turning away 39 shots for his first career playoff shutout.
“He was unbelievable,” Doan said. “The first period, Chicago played great and we were fortunate to come out of it tied because Smitty played great. We started playing better in the second period and got our legs going.”
And now they’re headed to a place the franchise hasn’t been in a long, long time—and they want to keep going.