Phoenix Coyotes goalie Mike Smith, left, and Oliver Ekman-Larsson, of Sweden, celebrate after they defeated the against the Minnesota Wild 4-1 in an NHL hockey game on Saturday, April 7, 2012, in St. Paul, Minn. (AP Photo/ Jim Mone)
GLENDALE, Ariz. - The Phoenix Coyotes went through a brutal stretch in the schedule that sent them roughly 40,000 kilometres across North America in six weeks.
They battled injuries, inconsistent stretches, some bad bounces. Oh, yeah, they still don't have an owner yet, either.
But when the final horn of the regular season sounded, the Coyotes had closed out what might have been the most impressive of 33 years as an NHL franchise.
After so many near misses, a big move from Canada to the desert and an ongoing ownership saga, the Coyotes were division champions for the first time—and, yeah, it was a sweet feeling.
"It's nice to have, it's been a long time, to be associated with the organization and to give something to put a feather in your hat and you feel like this is something you can look forward to," Coyotes captain Shane Doan said. "A couple years ago we had 107 points and it didn't work out for us and no one even really remembers that. But when you win the division it's something you remember."
This one will be remembered for the way the Coyotes did it.
No owner for the third straight season. No real stars. A goaltender many didn't think was a true No. 1. A grinding, unglamorous style.
Phoenix was supposed to finish middle of the pack, be in a fight just to get into the playoffs.
The Coyotes didn't listen to the predictions, the criticisms. They stuck to their counterpunching game plan, fought through a brutal first half of the season and built confidence as it winded down.
They closed it out Saturday night by beating Minnesota 4-1 to finish with 97 points, one ahead of San Jose.
Phoenix opens the playoffs Thursday night against Chicago at home.
"It feels good; Good for our team, our organization, fun to be a part of," said Keith Yandle, Phoenix's All-Star defenceman. "Had to battle through a lot of adversity, we've had a tough schedule, played a lot of tough teams. But we've got the right group of guys to battle through that. It's been a fun stretch, a fun full year."
It wouldn't have been possible without Mike Smith.
Brought in to replace Ilya Bryzgalov, a Vezina Trophy finalist two seasons ago, Smith was considered an average-at-best pick up, at least outside the organization. But the Coyotes and coach Dave Tippett, who previously coached Smith in Dallas, liked his big body, his competitiveness.
They saw Smith as a No. 1 goalie and, as the season wound down, he was one of the best in the league, allowing two goals over the final five games—all wins by the Coyotes—to finish the season 38-18-10 with a 2.21 goals-against average and eight shutouts.
"He's embraced the No. 1 goaltender role with our team and he's played excellent," Tippett said. "He had a few games there where he was basically willing us into the playoffs. His game is top notch right now. Hopefully, he goes into the playoffs and that continues."
It was a long wait for the Coyotes and nearly as long for Doan.
A first-round draft pick in 1995, the bruising forward is the only remaining player from the Winnipeg days. He played one season with the original version of the Jets before the franchise moved to Phoenix and spent 17 seasons with the team before earning his first division title.
"It's been a two-way street. They've been very generous to me," the 35-year-old Doan said. "It feels really special because you feel like when you get drafted by a team and brought in by a team that you have a job to do and your job is to win. We were able to get one banner up; it only took 17 years, that's not bad. But it is, it's nice to have something."
Now that the Coyotes have knocked off one missing piece of their resume, they're hoping to take down another: Win a playoff series for the first time since moving to the desert.
The way things went this season, this could be their year.
AP Sports Writer Jon Krawczynski in Minneapolis contributed to this report.
Note to readers: This is a corrected story. A previous version contained an incorrect travel estimate in lead sentence.