GLENDALE -- The Coyotes experienced the most successful season in franchise history in 2011-12 and capped the exciting campaign with their deepest run into the Stanley Cup Playoffs.
Remarkably, Phoenix was in 12th place in the Western Conference standings on Feb. 1. By the end of the month, however, the Coyotes ranked third in the conference and first in the Pacific Division thanks to an 11-0-1 record in February.
The Coyotes captured their first division title in 33 years on April 7 by defeating the Minnesota Wild, 4-1, at the Xcel Energy Center on April 7. It was the team’s fifth consecutive win to end the regular season.
“What I liked the most about it is we didn’t go into the playoffs through the back door,” General Manager Don Maloney said. “We kicked the door down. We won the division on our own right with a combination of great goaltending and great coaching and everybody contributing. That pleases me as much as anything. We grabbed a hold of the challenge and jumped ahead of some very good teams to win the division.”
Under the leadership of Maloney and Head Coach Dave Tippett, the Coyotes finished the regular season with a record of 42-27-13 to earn a third straight trip to the postseason in Tippett’s third year behind the bench.
Once there, the Coyotes advanced to the Western Conference Final by defeating the Chicago Blackhawks, 4-2, in the conference quarterfinals – the franchise’s first series win in the playoffs since moving to Arizona in 1996 – and the Nashville Predators, 4-1, in the conference semifinals. The triumph over Chicago also snapped the longest gap between playoff series wins (25 years) by a team in NHL history.
The Coyotes competed hard against the Los Angeles Kings in the Western Conference Final but lost that series, 4-1. The Kings went on to win the Stanley Cup in convincing fashion over the New Jersey Devils.
“We raised the bar,” Coyotes goalie Mike Smith said after the season. “To get where we got with the group of guys we have has been a heck of a ride. I couldn’t be more proud of the team in here.”
Captain Shane Doan said despite being eliminated by the Kings, the Coyotes planted a seed for future years.
“I didn’t like the way it finished with us losing in the conference finals, but at the same time, it gave us a little taste of what the group can do,” Doan said.
Doan scored a pair of game-winning goals in the postseason to move into first place in franchise history with four playoff game-winning goals in his career. He also notched his first NHL hat trick in his 1,161st game in dramatic fashion on Jan. 7 vs. the New York Islanders. Doan scored a goal in every period of that game, with his third goal coming with just 0.1 seconds left in regulation.
"I gave people a good story for a long time and it lasted for a long time, but I'm pretty happy to get it,” Doan said. “I wanted it.”
After the season, Doan, who seemingly willed the Coyotes to victory in Game 4 of the Western Conference Final vs. LA, was named the recipient of the 2011-12 Mark Messier Leadership Award at the NHL Awards Ceremony in Las Vegas. The annual award “recognizes an individual as a superior leader within their sport, and as a contributing member of society.”
Meanwhile, many of Doan’s teammates also delivered memorable seasons in 2011-12:
Smith was sensational in his rookie year with the Coyotes and was voted the team’s Most Valuable Player after setting career highs in games played (67), wins (38), goals-against average (2.21), save percentage (.930) and shutouts (8). In addition, Smith was named the NHL’s First Star of the Month for February after recording a career-high 11-game winning streak from Feb. 4-28.
Defenseman Keith Yandle represented the Coyotes at the 2012 All-Star Game in Ottawa. Yandle, a two-time All-Star, was drafted by Team Alfredsson and collected his first career All-Star point (an assist) in the NHL’s premiere exhibition game. He also participated in the fastest skater competition during the All-Star Skills Challenge.
Winger Ray Whitney led the team in scoring with 77 points (24 points, 53 assists) and became only the 79th player in NHL history to record 1,000 career points when he set up linemate Radim Vrbata for a second-period goal in a 4-0 win over the Anaheim Ducks on March 31.
Vrbata had his best NHL season and led the team in goals (35) and game-winning goals (12) - a franchise record he now shares with Jeremy Roenick.
“Overall, I think everybody is pretty happy with the season we had, but of course we want to take it a little further and play for the Stanley Cup,” Vrbata said.
Center Antoine Vermette quietly came to the Coyotes in a February trade and played solid hockey throughout the final two-plus months of the regular season and the playoffs, in which he led the Coyotes in goals (five) and points (10). Vermette was particularly effective in the face-off circles where he won 56.6 percent of his draws in the regular season and 58.7 percent in the playoffs.
"I went from a team that was going nowhere to a team that driving for the playoffs. I couldn't have been happier," Vermette said. "You want to play meaningful games. You want to be part of that push (for the Stanley Cup). I know it meant a lot for this organization, and I was very thrilled to be part of it."
Defenseman Derek Morris played in his 1,000th NHL game vs. St. Louis on March 25 and became the 278th all-time player in League history to reach the 1,000th game milestone.
“It’s been fun,” Morris said. “…I never set a goal to play a lot of games, but I’m very fortunate I did and I’m very thankful.”
Defenseman Oliver Ekman-Larsson had a breakout season in 2011-12 and led all defensemen on the team with 13 goals. He finished the regular season ranked second behind Yandle in ice time at 22:06, but he then led all Coyotes in postseason ice time at an astounding 25:46 per game.
Winger Mikkel Boedker also had a breakout season and scored game-winning goals in Games 3 and 4 of the conference quarterfinals vs. Chicago to become the first NHL player to score consecutive game-winning goals in overtime in the postseason since Joe Sakic did it for Colorado in 2004.
All and all, the 2011-12 season will likely live forever in the memories of the team’s loyal and passionate fans.
“It was a phenomenal year,” Maloney said. “What we've done is establish a base of expectations and how we move forward. We're not the team you've seen the last 33 years. Our model is New Jersey, the Red Wings … in the playoffs with a chance to win it all every year.”
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