With the sports world on hold, Cronkite News will take a daily look at this day in sports history and reflect on some of the biggest moments in Arizona sports.
GLENDALE – For a hockey franchise still trying to find its roots in the desert, the Coyotes sure knew how to make their playoff series eight years ago memorable.
It wasn’t just that they won their first playoff series since moving from Winnipeg to the Valley in 1996, or that they were still called the “Phoenix” Coyotes. Or that they were a franchise technically owned by the NHL, with nobody knowing for certain if the team was here to stay.
It was the way the Coyotes won that highly contested Western Conference Quarterfinals series against the Chicago Blackhawks, allowing fans here to finally experience playoff hockey for an extended period of time.
Throughout six entertaining games in that series – finally won by the Coyotes, 4-2 – heavy hits were thrown, amazing timely saves were made and lengthy suspensions were handed down. Games were so close, five of them went into overtime – something that has occurred only two other times in NHL history. Through the first five games, Phoenix outscored Chicago, 13-12.
In both Games 1 and 2, Chicago scored the tying goal with less than 15 seconds left in regulation. The Coyotes took a 3-1 series lead into Game 5, then lost 2-1 at home and headed back to Chicago’s United Center for Game 6.
On opponent’s ice, the final game belonged to Coyotes’ goalie Mike Smith. Behind his 39 saves, Phoenix blanked Chicago, 4-0, on April 23, 2012, to clinch the franchise’s first playoff series since relocation 16 years earlier, and the first one in franchise history since 1987. The game-winning goal came with just under 7 minutes to play in the second period, a shot from defensemen Oliver Ekman-Larson on the power play.
Smith had suffered a brutal hit in Game 2 after Chicago’s Andrew Shaw smashed the netminder in the head — Shaw was ejected and later suspended for three games — but the Phoenix goalie was impenetrable in Game 6, turning back all 39 shots he faced. All but one skater had at least one shot on goal for the Blackhawks, but Smith still came away with his first playoff shutout.
“They are such a highly skilled team and we knew they weren’t going to roll over,” Smith told NBC Sports.
In the six-game series, Smith stopped 229 of 241 shots. He faced 95 shots in the first two games alone and only let six get past him.
“He’s unbelievable and we’re gonna go as far as he can take us,” Shane Doan, the Coyotes’ all-time leading scorer, told NBC Sports.
Phoenix cruised through the Western Conference Semifinals, dispatching the Nashville Predators in five games before falling to the red-hot Los Angeles Kings in the Conference Finals, 4-1. The Kings would go on to capture their first Stanley Cup, beating the New Jersey Devils four games to two in the Finals.
It seemed at the time that the Coyotes had finally turned a playoff corner. After all, if the Kings could begin the postseason as the No. 8 seed and leave it hoisting Lord Stanley, surely the Coyotes’ future in the desert was equally bright.
“Winning the first playoff series in franchise history is a huge achievement for our team. We’ve grown a lot as a group. We have to keep improving. We aren’t there yet where we want to be but we’re finding ways to win hockey games Coyote style,” Smith told NBC Sports, shortly after dispatching Chicago.
But since that magical run in 2012, the Coyotes have yet to advance to hockey’s postseason.
This season they looked poised to make the playoffs for the first time in eight years, until the NHL went on hiatus because of the coronavirus pandemic. The new spin on Coyote style will have to wait.