A year ago, amid rumors that the franchise would be leaving the desert for Winnipeg, the Phoenix Coyotes struggled in a best-of-seven against Detroit, losing all four games.
The postgame handshake line was supposed to be the end of the franchise, owned by the NHL for seemingly forever, despite the league saying it won't operate the team forever.
Instead, the Coyotes are still around. Dave Tippett -- the most underappreciated coach in this league in a long time -- led Phoenix back to the playoffs this season. This time, it was done as a division champion for the first time ever. Tippett has some young guns like Oliver Ekman-Larsson and Keith Yandle on the blue line, and grizzled veterans like Shane Doan and Derek Morris all over the place. This year, it seems he's found the right mix to play his system to perfection.
Not surprisingly, Phoenix was an underdog entering a first-round series against Chicago. After losing Game 2 in overtime, the Coyotes won two straight in Chicago, and eventually beat the Blackhawks in six games. Despite the seeds (Phoenix was third and Chicago sixth), the win was deemed an upset by many. Chicago was actually a popular pick among the "experts" to win the Western Conference.
The Coyotes weren't necessarily favored against Nashville in the second round, but they solved Pekka Rinne in the first two games, scoring nine goals on their way to a 2-0 series lead. Nashville shut down the Coyotes in Game 3, but Mike Smith was in form for Game 4, helping Phoenix to a 1-0 win that gave the Pacific Division champs command of the series.
Monday, NHL commissioner Gary Bettman was in Glendale, and it wasn't to shop. It also wasn't to drop the ceremonial first puck. It was to announce that the league was moving forward with San Jose minority owner Greg Jamison on a deal to buy the team.
Unfortunately, we've danced this dance before, and Bettman's rather underwhelming news conference doesn't assuage many fears that this franchise is still in serious trouble.
But they continue to shake off distractions and rumors. The players focus on hockey as best they can, and this year, that focus has been helped by the play of Smith, a journeyman goalie unwanted by virtually everyone else in the NHL, but a serious Conn Smythe candidate with this team that's now halfway to a Cup.
That Bettman made his vague, "nothing's official yet," announcement just an hour or so before faceoff Monday night is absolutely fitting of what the Coyotes have overcome in recent years. In front of a raucous home crowd, Phoenix beat Nashville 2-1 to move into their first Western Conference Final in franchise history. Martin Hanzal scored the winner in the second period, and Morris had the other Phoenix goal. That isn't shocking, considering how much offense Tippett usually gets from his defensemen.
The Kings-Coyotes series might not be a huge ratings boon for NBC (or the Canadian networks, for that matter), but Phoenix and Los Angeles provide two great stories as they meet for a spot in the Stanley Cup Final. Phoenix could be labeled the unwanted team, the one playing a self-proclaimed brand of "Coyote Ugly" hockey as it chases hockey's holy grail. The Kings have been practically forgotten about in Los Angeles for years, but they are rocketing into mainstream relevance in the nation's second-largest city, thanks to eight wins in nine games over the top two teams in the West this season.
We don't know what will happen with Jamison's ownership bid. He might go the way of Matthew Hulsizer once the Goldwater Institute gets its paws on whatever the NHL and Jamison want the city to do to keep the team there. Or maybe he's the knight in shining armor that dedicated Coyotes fans -- yes, there are many of them -- have been looking for ever since Jerry Moyes tried to go behind the NHL's back and sell the team to Jim Balsillie.
What isn't up for debate is that this Phoenix team is absolutely a Cup contender, and in doing so, the Coyotes have overcome distractions that would have taken down many more talented groups of hockey players. The steely resolve of this group merits a stick salute from all of us, no matter what you think of how the NHL has handled the ownership side of things.