The reputation of playoff futility that preceded the Arizona Coyotes prior to the 2011-12 season was a well known path that Coyotes fans preferred not to tread. Despite some very strong teams, Arizona simply could not translate regular season success with playoff performance. Given the propensity of playoff series in today's NHL to go the distance, let's look at the three occasions when the Coyotes went all the way to a game seven.
1996-97 Stanley Cup Playoffs
Mighty Ducks of Anaheim defeat the Phoenix Coyotes (3-0)
The team which relocated from Winnipeg to Phoenix had some of the NHL's best. Keith Tkachuk was already one of the league's brightest offensive stars, and Teppo Numminen was a franchise defensemen. The addition of Jeremy Roenick, Mike Gartner, and Nikolai Khabibulin made the '96-'97 Coyotes a force to be reckoned with.
Their first round opponent, the Mighty Ducks of Anaheim, was not without its own stars. Teemu Selanne had rocketed to attention with an unreal rookie season that will likely never be topped, and he was joined on the wing by Paul Kariya, another prolific goal scorer who had just come off of a 50 goal season. The Ducks finished 2nd in a Pacific Division that also included that year's President's Trophy recipient: the Colorado Avalanche. With 85 points, the Ducks secured home ice advantage over the Coyotes in the 4-5 matchup (a theme we will see in most of the team's game sevens)
Right away the Ducks showed why Selanne and Kariya were to be feared; the two had a combined five goals and four assists in the first two games of the series as the Ducks jumped out to a 2-0 series lead. But Tkachuk and Company would not be beat so easily; the Coyotes won the next three games, including a demonstrative 5-2 victory in Anaheim in Game 5 to push the Ducks to the brink of elimination.
But Anaheim would not be denied. The Ducks went into Phoenix and stole a 3-2 OT victory at America West Arena in Game 6. That would prove to be the dagger, as the Coyotes would be shut out by Guy Hebert in Game 7 to lose the series 4-3. Tkachuk would record six goals, and Cliff Ronning would notch seven assists to lead their team in those respective categories.
1998-99 Stanley Cup Playoffs
St. Louis Blues defeat the Phoenix Coyotes (1-0 OT)
After losing the previous year to the eventual Stanley Cup champion Detroit Red Wings in six games, the Coyotes found themselves back in the 4-5 matchup against the St. Louis Blues. The Coyotes no longer had Mike Gartner, but they did add Dallas Drake to the mix while their youngster Shane Doan continued to develop into a solid top six player.
Their opponent, the St. Louis Blues, had a relatively young roster anchored by the far more experienced Grant Fuhr in net. They had a potent defensive corps led by Chris Pronger and Al MacInnis, and also had a budding offensive star in Pavol Demitra.
The fate of the Coyotes may very well have been sealed before the series even began. In a late regular season game between the Dallas Stars and the Coyotes, Stars' captain Derian Hatcher leveled Jeremy Roenick with a high hit that broke Roenick's jaw in retaliation for a hit Roenick had delivered on Mike Modano weeks earlier. The Hatcher hit would knock Roenick out for most of the Blues series, and would severely weaken his physical conditioning leading up to his dramatic return in Game 7.
Yet again the Coyotes managed to push their opponent to the brink of elimination; the Coyotes rode to a 3-1 series lead thanks in large part to the efforts of Doan and Drake. But another overtime victory in America West Arena by the visiting team would swing momentum away from the Desert Dogs. After a convincing Game 6 victory, the Blues went back to Phoenix confident in their chances to win Game 7.
Despite Roenick's return, the Coyotes would find themselves blanked yet again, although this time they managed to get the game into the extra frame. The Coyotes would lose the game 1-0 in overtime, and the team's playoff woes would continue uninterrupted for another ten seasons.
2009-10 Stanley Cup Playoffs
Detroit Red Wings defeat the Phoenix Coyotes (6-1)
The return of playoff hockey to the desert after an eight year absence came as a complete shock to the hockey world. With no owner and little offensive talent, the Dave Tippett coached team rode Ilya Bryzgalov's back to a 50-25-7 record, good enough for 107 points, the most ever in the franchise's history. Unfortunately for Phoenix, the team happened to play in the same division as the President's Trophy winning San Jose Sharks, which meant instead of the 2-7 matchup they would have earned as the Pacific Division champion (the Chicago Blackhawks also had a better record), the team found itself yet again in the 4-5 spot.
That was problematic because their opponent, the Detroit Red Wings, probably should not have been there. The Wings had been ravaged by injuries early on (only Nick Lidstrom and Brad Stuart would play 82 games that season), but got healthy in time to make a major run in March and April. With the help of young netminder Jimmy Howard, the team went 16-3-2 in their final 21 games to finish with 102 points and a first round matchup with the Coyotes.
Phoenix and Detroit decided early on that home-ice advantage was going to be essentially useless. After Game 1, a 3-2 Coyotes home win to satisfy the hockey gods, the teams would take turns stealing games from each other's arenas (the lone exception being a 3-0 Detroit shutout in Game 4). The Coyotes had managed to stave off elimination with an impressive 5-2 victory at Joe Louis Arena, and had reason to hope that their performance could carry over thanks to the energy of their fans.
And then Ilya Bryzgalov's wheels fell off. The game would remain relatively close until 19:55 of the second period, when Brad Stuart scored an unassisted marker to make the game 4-1. After being thoroughly outplayed for most of the game, the Coyotes simply could not muster the energy necessary to get back into the contest, and two more soft third period goals by Detroit sealed the deal.
The 0-3 franchise record in playoff game sevens is a story of missed opportunities. The Coyotes squandered series leads and failed to take advantage of their home ice. Although the league has changed over the years, the Coyotes will need to heed the lessons of their past if they want to make an extended playoff run.