Miracle on Ice: Can the Coyotes Go All the Way?

As Sunday's game between the Phoenix Coyotes and the Los Angeles Kings began, fans belted out the same refrain they'd left Jobing.com Arena with six days earlier — when the Desert Dogs booted the Nashville Predators out of the Stanley Cup playoffs in five games:

"Beat L.A.!"

The crowd was silenced nearly four minutes into the game, when Kings star Anze Kopitar backhanded the puck into the net past the Coyotes' phenomenal goaltender, Mike Smith.

Smith’s been the star of the Coyotes’ playoff run.
Todd K. Orol/Reuters/Newscom
Smith’s been the star of the Coyotes’ playoff run.

It wasn't a perfect "whiteout" in the arena that day. Quite a few L.A. fans made the trip from the coast to Glendale, and the clumps of black-clad fans went crazy as the Kings dominated early.

Later in the opening period, waves of white rose and screamed when Coyotes defenseman Derek Morris slapped the puck into the goal from center ice, past Kings goalie Jonathan Quick, who's touted as one of the league's best.

Quips of "not so Quick, eh?" could be heard all over the place.

The Coyotes wound up losing 4-2, and the white-clad masses shuffled dejectedly out of the arena, forced to wait two days (past press time for this story) for a shot at revenge.

"Coyote ugly" is the how goalie Smith has referred to his team's play during its great playoff run — it's a feat to wind up in the final four of pro hockey, in the Western Conference championship. He meant it in a good way; this time, though, the relentless skill of the Kings made Smith's soundbite ring true.

Winning ugly is cool, but losing ugly is, well, ugly — and it had Coach Dave Tippet using the game to motivate his players to keep their amazing run going.

"We weren't close in that game," Tippett said. "We got beat in every facet . . . Hopefully, we take some lessons from it."

Tippet isn't exactly worried. As Smith suggests, the Coyotes have played ugly before, yet they managed to dominate the Predators in the second round of the conference playoffs while doing it.

And the team has won, despite lack of regular-season support from fans and front-office adversity. Nobody gave them much of a chance to get to the conference championship round — or even to remain in the Valley, for that matter.

Consider how unusual it is to find a National Hockey League franchise in the desert in the first place — the temperature in Glendale reached 103 the day the Coyotes took on the Kings in game one.

Which may help explain why the team has lacked fan support through most of its tenure here — ice hockey in the desert simply is a little weird.

The chilly arena had been filled to the brim only a few times over the years, but filled to capacity it has been since the Coyotes got red hot in the playoffs. People who had never watched a hockey game in their lives started buying tickets or, at least, watching the Yotes on TV.

Considering all the franchise has been through — its financial problems forced the NHL to take over ownership, though a new owner recently bought in — it's amazing that the team is one series away from playing for the championship of Canadian-dominated pro ice hockey.

Forget about that first loss; this team even having a chance at the Stanley Cup was a feat beyond even Coyotes players' wildest dreams a few years ago.

To drive this point home: The Coyotes never before have played at this level. The team is competing in its first Western Conference finals in franchise history — even counting pre-Phoenix days, when the Coyotes were the Winnipeg Jets.

Since relocating to the Valley in 1996, the team has been mundane to disastrous on the ice. The Coyotes qualified for the playoffs in five of their first six seasons but made quick first-round exits each year. They then missed the playoffs for six straight seasons, before earning spots and losing in the first rounds again in 2010 and 2011.

The Coyotes' financial difficulties were apparent even before local developer Steve Ellman bought the franchise in 2001 and moved its home ice from what was then America West Arena to a new arena, now next door to University of Phoenix Stadium, home of the Arizona Cardinals.

Transportation tycoon Jerry Moyes bought a controlling interest in the team in 2006, and it went into bankruptcy three years later.

A return to Canada was expected for many years, but that — like the numerous deals to sell the team that fell through — never materialized. Thankfully, the Coyotes' suddenly boisterous fans attest lately.

Even this year, before these fair-weather fans got behind a winning team, the Coyotes ranked last in the league in filling their "house." Jobing.com Arena was less than three-quarters full during typical regular-season games — only one other NHL team averages less than 80 percent capacity for home games. Slightly more than half of the teams typically are at or above capacity on any given night.

No doubt the team's new owner is banking on the success of this year's largely foreign-born band of Sedona-red-jerseyed ice skaters to turn things around.

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