Coyotes season ends in West Finals, but team still manages success
Ownerless. Starless. Penny-less.
All words, or variations of words, that describe the Phoenix Coyotes. And they never rang more true than this year, a season which saw a ragtag team of role players, veterans and second-chance seekers thrown together in the hopes of achieving something magical.
What transpired was unlike anything ever seen before in the Phoenix-metro area, the state of Arizona and the sports world across the board. A team that absolutely nobody picked to even make the playoffs mustered their way to not only a postseason spot, but a Pacific Division championship to boot.
Sure, the Desert Dogs have a few players on their roster that would be much more heralded and well-known in bigger markets, but you can count them on one hand. But for the others, this was the chance to be part of something bigger, something that would grab attention and something that analysts, fans and casuals look back on say, “Damn, that was fun.”
For nearly 100 games this season, regular season and playoffs combined, the Coyotes busted their ass in their search for glory, coming up just short as they fell to the Los Angeles Kings in five games in the Western Conference Finals. The final game of the season was as good as they get, with end-to-end action, big hits, controversy and a lively, enthusiastic crowd all thrown into the mix, creating a combustible element that seemed ready to explode at any second.
Unfortunately for the sellout crowd in attendance, the storybook season wrote itself a depressing end. Despair was evident, faces of shock filled the arena and the anger flowed as Dustin Penner, a Kings forward, potted the winning tally at 17:42 of overtime to send Los Angeles to the Cup Finals and the Coyotes to the golf course.
For one who has been attached to this team for so long now and has seen the trials and tribulations associated with ongoing ownership fiasco, the constant ripping from other fan bases and seeing the inability to not quite finish the job, I left Tuesday night’s game in a bit of a shock as well.
The entire drive home, I did not say a word. I just sat there, lost in my thoughts and wondering what had just happened. Reminiscing over the game was both joyful and gut-wrenching, as I reflected on clear-as-day memories of Coyotes goals from Taylor Pyatt, Marc-Antoine Pouliot and Keith Yandle before being brought back to Earth with flashes of the Kings goals, especially Penner’s dagger, a goal that I saw clearly from my seat and will probably never rid my mind of.
The Coyotes would have had a hard time anyways trying to fight back from a 3-0 series deficit after playing like pee wees the first two games and having the Kings steal Game Three from them. But, their win in Game Four provided a glimmer of hope and I can not help but feel that a Game Five win in front of the hometown crowd would have provided the momentum boost to keep the dream alive.
Alas, that was not the way it went down and that is saddening. There will be people who will complain about the officiating, especially at critical moments during the series, such as the Kings’ Dustin Brown’s controversial hit on Coyotes defenseman Michael Roszival a mere 12 seconds before the clinching goal. But, when it comes down to it, the better team won as the Kings have torn through the postseason on a pace not seen in years.
But, for the Coyotes faithful to move on from this tough loss and look ahead, we must remember what made this season great. This is a team hampered by budget restrictions because the NHL owns the franchise, making it tough to sign big-name players and acquire needed pieces through trades. Not to mention the fact that the instability of the franchise behind the scenes makes it hard to have players commit to a team that may not be here next season.
Yet, they continue to scratch and claw their way to winning season after winning season, as they have done the past three years. The veteran leadership of Shane Doan and the immaculate coaching from Dave Tippett drive this team to succeed game in and game out. This season witnessed a multitude of milestones, from Doan’s first career hat trick to Ray Whitney notching career point No. 1000 to Mike Smith breaking out between the pipes. As a team, they tore through the month of February, going 11-0-1 and setting the stage for a deep run into the postseason, especially after they ripped off five consecutive games to claim the Pacific Division crown.
Following that franchise milestone, the Coyotes proceeded to dispose of the Chicago Blackhawks in six games, when many predicted elimination, and the Nashville Predators in five games, as they continued to defy the odds and prove pundits everywhere wrong. There appeared to be no stopping this team, until they met a Kings team that was white-hot and knew it, and a team that they can now build a rivalry with going into the [uncertain] future.
This is a team built on camaraderie, guts and a lunch bucket attitude. There are no stars. They play as one and do a mighty fine job of it. Their big marketing slogan this season was “Hockey the Hard Way”, a phrase meant to exude the belief that they do not care what is being said about them, that they will go out every day and leave everything they have on the ice. And while that style of play sometimes transformed into “Hockey the Heart Attack Way” due to somewhat constant mistakes that caused fans’ vital organs to skip a beat, they never buckled under the pressure.
And that is how they should be remembered.