Coyotes finish off best season ever

Associated Press Modified: May 24, 2012 at 8:33 pm •  Published: May 24, 2012

GLENDALE, Ariz. (AP) — The end of the season hit the Phoenix Coyotes particularly hard.

After scratching and clawing their way deeper into the playoffs than they had ever been, the Coyotes were struck by the did-that-just-happen shock of an overtime goal that simultaneously ended Game 5 of the Western Conference finals and their season.

On the ice and in the locker room, they were bitter, angry, frustrated; at the officiating, the Los Angeles Kings, themselves.

Two days later, the disappointment was still there, only tempered by the sense of accomplishment.

A first division title in the NHL, three games from the Stanley Cup finals, a prospective owner in waiting — it's hard to stay mad too long after what was easily the best season in franchise history.

"It did sting and it still does a little bit," Coyotes forward Mikkel Boedker said on Thursday as the team held its final meetings and the players cleaned out their lockers. "Looking back, it's obviously not the way you want to end, but looking back at the whole season, it's a story that should be told all the way around."

It was quite a tale.

Picked to finish near the bottom of the Western Conference, the Coyotes played with a prove-everybody-wrong intensity all season.

They overcame a string of injuries and a ruthless schedule the first half of the season with an 11-game winning streak in February that got them back into the playoff picture.

They won the final five games of the regular season to capture their first division title in 33 years as an NHL franchise.

They got past the first round of the playoffs for the first time in 25 years and kept going, knocking off two supposedly superior teams to reach the conference finals for the first time.

OK, so maybe it didn't end the way they wanted. Watching Dustin Penner score 17:42 into overtime just seconds after Phoenix defenseman Michal Rozsival limped off following a questionable hit was tough to take.

Still, finishing three wins from reaching the Stanley Cup finals with a team that has no superstars, it's hard for these desert underdogs not to feel good about what they accomplished.

"You're going 100 mph and it stops, so that's the frustrating part," Coyotes coach Dave Tippett said. "But as days go by, I think we're going to recognize that this was a pretty special group."

It could be the group that sets the franchise's foundation firmly in the desert.

The Coyotes have had a few surges in popularity, from when the team moved from Winnipeg to when Wayne Gretzky became owner and, later, their coach.

But in recent years, support in Phoenix has waned, in part because fans were reluctant to support a team they weren't sure was going to stick around.

The Coyotes jumpstarted the fan base with their late-season push and the Phoenix area became infused with hockey fever as the team reached deeper into the playoffs, filling Arena with a "Whiteout" for every home game.