A hockey season that started on an ugly note in San Jose finished on an uglier one Tuesday night in Glendale. However, almost everything in between was exciting; even many of the losses. On October 8, 2011 just two periods into the 2011-2012 NHL season it would have hard to be believe the Phoenix Coyotes would have made the playoffs, much less the Western Conference Final series. On that fall evening in Northern California Phoenix's hockey club found themselves down 6-1 to the San Jose Sharks in a game they would eventually lose 6-3. Two night's later they would lose their first in series of thrilling (and heartbreaking) games to the Dallas Stars.
Though it was just two games into the season many people felt the Desert Dogs were the precisely what they had expected. An over matched squad who would finish out of the playoffs. After all the team had lost their starting goalie, Ilya Bryzgalov, in free agency over the summer. To make matters worse the Coyotes went out and replaced him with a goalie who had been send down to the AHL the year before after losing his starting job. It looked like even Tippett's coaching acumen wouldn't be enough to make Phoenix a playoff caliber squad.
However, less than a week later the Dogs had beaten a highly touted Nashville squad on the road 5-2 and won their home opener by blasting the former Atlanta Thrashers 4-1. Early in the season it became clear that the 2011-2012 would not shrink in the face of a little adversity. In addition to the heartbreak games against the Stars, they would lose a game in the final second to the Rangers and go into the final week of the season with their playoff lives on the line facing two teams they hadn't been able to beat all season. Every time they faced challenges in the regular season they found a way to bounce back.
Five days before the Coyotes season began in San Jose, an advertising agency from Minnesota named Fallon debuted their ad campaign for the team. The marketing slogan the agency came up was especially fitting for a group of players, many of whom had been let go or given up on by their former organizations. "Hockey the Hard Way" described this years Desert Dogs perfectly. Their play wasn't always pretty, many a night they were out shot or looked out manned, but they seemed to always find a way to get what they needed to done in the end.
At the time of the All-star break in late January the team found themselves outside of the top 8 spots in the West. In addition, they had traded their most offensively skilled center, Kyle Turris, the month before. While the season had gone better than many had anticipated and about what others expected, the players in the locker room expected more. In the first game after the break the team suffered a 4-1 loss to the last place team in their division, Anaheim. Their chances of making the playoffs looked dim. There was little sign that the month of February would be like no other in the history of the franchise.
The Sharks would once again in the Yotes season. On February 4th Phoenix beat San Jose 5-2. The Valley's hockey club would lose only one game the rest of the month, a hard fought shootout loss to the Vancouver Canucks. The Coyotes went a 11-0-1 in the month of February. Not only was it the best month in the club's history it also got the Yotes back in the playoff and division title hunts. In the latter part of the month general manager Don Maloney acquired center Antoine Vermette in a trade with Columbus. Unlike the year before the Yotes were going into the last stretch of the season with depth down the middle. Things were looking up heading into March.
As glorious as February had been was as terrible as the first five games in March were. The Yotes gave up the first 2 goals in each of the contests. What made things worse was 4 of the 5 games were against teams who were in the bottom third of the league. The 6th game of the month found the Yotes once again facing the Sharks. San Jose, like in early February, was the cure to Phoenix's ails. The Coyotes won the game and spent the next two weeks alternating between wins and losses.
On March 29, with five games left in the season and the Coyotes again outside of the top 8 in the West, the Sharks came calling. At this point the four of the five teams in the Pacific division were fighting it out for 3rd and 8th place in the West. Once again, a meeting with their adversaries from Northern California was just the medicine the Desert Dogs needed. They won the game and then went on to win the final four games of the season. Two of those games were against the Blues and the Blue Jackets. Up to that point the Yotes had been winless against both teams. The five game winning streak propelled Phoenix back into the playoffs for a 3rd year in a row. It also gave them their first Pacific division title.First the first time in memory fans streamed to the airport to meet their heroes as they returned from the road after winning the title.
The Coyotes faced the Blackhawks in the first round of the playoffs. In a hard fought six games series in which the first five games went into overtime the Coyotes found a way to prevail 4-2. This was the first time the since their arrival in Phoenix and the first time since 1987 that the franchise had won a playoff series. At this point the season was an unqualified success. The Desert Dogs weren't finished making history yet. In the 2nd round of the playoffs the Coyotes faced the Nashville Predators. The Coyotes again played extra time in the first game against the Preds. Though they were outplayed much of the game they found a way to win it in overtime and then never looked back winning the series 4-1. Next up was the team everyone was buzzing about, the Los Angeles Kings. The Kings had already taken out the top two seeds in the West. Unfortunately for Phoenix they would be next. LA eradicated Phoenix's hopes of a Stanley Cup in just 5 games with a combination of a pugnacious forecheck and stifling defense. While some members of the team and fans handled the Yotes exit from the playoffs poorly there was much to be proud of.
In addition to the team's accomplishments during the season, Phoenix fans also got to witness amazing individual efforts this season like Shane Doan's first career hat trick, Ray Whitney's 1,000th NHL point, and Mike Smith's February shutout streak. And that was just the regular season. The postseason brought us more incredible nights of Mike Smith brilliance in goal, Mikkel Boedker's OT dramatics against the Hawks, Ray Whitney's OT goal in game 1 against Nashville, and Shane Doan taking the team on his back in Game 4 against the Kings.
The 2011-12 version of the Phoenix Coyotes will be remembered as a team that accomplished much more than was ever expected of them. Yet the image I will likely think about most of this year's squad won't involve any of the aforementioned team or individual accomplishments. The image I will have in my head would be of Mike Smith, Rostislav Klesla, Derek Morris, Boyd Gordon, and Lauri Korpikoski. These five players made up the team's top penalty kill unit for much of the season. The Coyotes penalty kill ranked 8th in the regular season in the league and never gave up a goal on the road in the playoffs. Their teamwork, self sacrifice, and skill embodied "Hockey The Hard Way".