Arizona Coyotes Throwback, Volume XV: Mike Smith and the Playoffs

The Arizona Coyotes finally had a year to be proud of, thanks to Mike Smith

This was the season all Arizona (Phoenix then) Coyotes fans were waiting for — 1st place finish in the tough Pacific Division.

Adding the Division championship to a third place ranking in the Western Conference made this the season of firsts for the Coyotes. They tallied 97 points with a 42 W, 27 L, 13 OTL record. Their 216 goals scored was 17th in the league, but their excellent defense finished the season with just 204 goals allowed, earning them 7th in the NHL for goals against.

They could have been playing elsewhere, though — since on May 10, 2011, the Glendale City Council voted (by a 5–2 count) to keep the Coyotes in Arizona for the 2011–12 season on an interim basis only while they tried to find an owner willing and able to keep the team in Glendale. Before this vote, there had been widespread speculation that the team would be re-locating back to Winnipeg before the start of the 2011-2012 NHL season.

League rumors aside, this was Mike Smith’s year. He excelled with a 38 W, 18 L, 10 OTL record, and his .930 SV% (2nd in the league), 2.21 GAA (fifth in the league), and 8 SO highlighted what was by far his best performance as a NHL goaltender. He finished fifth in the Vezina Trophy voting, and played a primary role in the team’s journey to the Western Conference Final — to put it succinctly, he played the way we wish he was playing this season. When a goaltender starts dominating, it does nothing but give the entire team a lift and an optimistic outlook.

Individual team stats went like this:

Ray (“The Wizard”) Whitney had a really good year, collecting 24 G and 53 A for 77 points in 82 games. His 12 PP points (8 of those goals) really helped this team score when they needed to — a quality the team has had trouble duplicating in the seasons since.

Next up was Radim Vrbata with 35 G (team leader) and 27 A for 62 points — and 12 GW goals — followed by Shane Doan with 50 points (22 G, 28 A).

This trio accounted for 22 of the 36 power play goals the team scored, which made up sixty-one percent of the team’s total PPG tally.  It’s this kind of firepower that really pushed the team to the playoffs, and kept them there for the longest post-season run the team had seen in Arizona franchise history.

The team’s somewhat average starting record of 22 W, 21 L, 8 OTL was blown away by their FABULOUS FEBRUARY, where they went 11-0-1 to put them in position to finish strongly.

During this stretch, they scored 34 goals — while allowing just 18. Smith was actually a perfect 11-0. Jason LaBarbera was pegged with the lone loss on 2-13-12, in a shootout loss to the Canucks. Just to show what impact a winning (or for that matter a losing) streak has on a team’s destiny — the Yotes went from 52 points to 75 over this 12 game span.

To put this in perspective, the Coyotes went 3-6-1 in their first ten games in December, earning them a mere seven points before they recorded back-to-back victories against the Anaheim Ducks and the Philadelphia Flyers. Had the team recorded a similar 11-0-1 record in the same time span, they would be sitting on a 44 point start to the season. Not even considering how many points their opponents wouldn’t have earned in those wins, that would have your desert dogs in 17th overall; a far cry from their current 27th position.

The Playoffs:

In the quarter finals, the Coyotes drew the tough Chicago Blackhawks as their opponent — but the wind blew (for once) in favor of the underdogs.

In a tightly fought six games series, the Coyotes prevailed 4 games to 2. I personally attended all three home games, and I almost had no fingernails left! Very exciting games, with the first 5 of 6 games going into overtime. (That was the first time that happened since the ’51 playoffs.) The first two games were split, with the Blackhawks tying the game in the last minute of regulation. In the deciding game, Mike Smith came up BIG by shutting out the Hawks 4-0. With the first round victory, it was the first playoff series won by a Coyotes team since they moved to the Valley in ’95.

No time to relax, though — the Nashville Predators were up next.

The Predators finished off the Red Wings by the tune of 4 games to 1 — although all of the games were one goal games except one. The Predators were a good match for the Yotes, though, since they played similar styles — relying heavily on a strong defense and good goaltending. Tight games were their specialty.

The Coyotes defeated the Predators in five games to advance to their first ever conference finals in team history. This also marked the first time that Phoenix jumped to a 2–0 series lead since 1987. Ray Whitney scored the overtime winner in the Coyotes’ 4–3 victory in Game 1, while in Game 2, four different Phoenix players each had a goal and an assist in their 5–3 win. The Predators rebounded back in Game 3, with goaltender Pekka Rinne stopping all 32 shots in a 2–0 victory, but Coyotes goaltender Mike Smith responded with a shutout of his own in Game 4, stopping 25 shots en route to Shane Doan scoring the lone goal in a 1–0 Phoenix win. Smith then continued to hold Nashville scoreless until 14:01 of the third period of Game 5, and the Coyotes held on to a 2–1 victory to win the series.

 

Of course, the Coyotes had to follow up their victory over the Blackhawks by playing the HOT L.A. Kings — who got the eighth seed, but still made it to the Conference Finals. Yeah — THOSE L.A. KINGS.

The Kings defeated the Coyotes in five games, advancing to their first Cup Finals since 1993. Los Angeles outshot Phoenix in Game 1 48–27 en route to a 4–2 win, then shut the Coyotes out in Game 2 4–0. Goaltender Jonathan Quick made 24 saves and Jeff Carter scored a hat trick in that particular win, then the Kings overcame an early 1–0 deficit to take Game 3

2–1. However, Shane Doan scored Phoenix’s only two goals and goaltender Mike Smith stopped all 36 shots to give the Coyotes a 2–0 victory in Game 4 to extend the series.

The final game went into extra minutes, but Dustin Penner’s goal at 17:42 of overtime gave the Kings a 4–3 victory in Game 5 to win the series. The Game 5 win extended the Kings’ road playoff winning streak to ten games (eight of which came this season) setting NHL playoff records. The Kings became only the second team to eliminate the top three seeds from the same postseason, after the 2003–04 Calgary Flames, and the second team at number 8 to get to the finals in the current format, after the Edmonton Oilers of 2005-06.

The Coyote’s dream season was over, but what a thrill the ride was to get there!