Detroit Red Wings goalie Jimmy Howard, left, makes a save on a shot from Phoenix Coyotes center Matthew Lombardi, right, in the third period of an NHL first-round playoff hockey series in 2010 in Glendale, Ariz. Howard faced 31 shots as the Red Wings won Game 5 by a score of 4-1.
ASSOCIATED PRESS Enlarge
SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. — The Phoenix Coyotes figured the cloud of uncertainty would be gone by now.
Surely, after a year of waiting for a new owner and wondering if they were going to stay in the desert, the situation would be worked out sometime this season.
Chicago businessman Matthew Hulsizer appeared to have a deal worked out to buy the franchise, but it’s been bogged down by red tape and may not go through at all.
The dragging out forced the Coyotes to compartmentalize for the second straight season, focusing on playing hard on the ice while the ownership circumstances and possible relocation lingered in the back of their minds off it.
And, just like last season, they pulled it off, grinding their way to a second straight playoff berth, the franchise’s first back-to-back postseasons since 1999-2000.
“Certainly, we’re not hiding from it, it’s front and center, but I give the leaders of this team and the coaches the credit for keeping it out of our locker room and realizing we only have control over a certain number of things,”
Coyotes general manager Don Maloney said. “The more success we have on the ice, the better chance we have to stay in a place where we all want to play in and they realize that.”
Phoenix had a rougher go of it this season than last, fighting through inconsistent stretches to reach 43 wins and 99 points after setting franchise records with 50 wins and 107 points last season.
The second fight-through-it season puts the Coyotes in a familiar spot: opening the playoffs against the formidable Detroit Red Wings.
Phoenix and Detroit played a memorable first-round playoff series last year, with the Coyotes winning in a road rout in Game 6 and the Red Wings knocking the Coyotes out in the desert with a 6-1 win in Game 7.
Phoenix was the higher seed last season after finishing second in the Pacific Division, but couldn’t keep up with the talented Red Wings after captain Shane Doan went down with a shoulder injury in Game 7.
The Coyotes are hoping the experience of last season and, hopefully, a healthy Doan will help them win a playoff series for the first time since moving from Winnipeg in 1996.
“There are a few guys here who want to respond the way it ended last year,” said Doan, who was physically dominant in the early part of last year’s series. “When you have a chance to redeem yourself, you want to be able to take advantage of it.”
The rematch will feature a little role reversal.
While the Coyotes had to claw their way into the playoffs, needing 81 games to clinch, the Red Wings were back to being one of hockey’s best and deepest teams.
Detroit failed to win the Central Division for the first time in nine seasons a year ago, heading into the playoffs as the fifth seed in the Western Conference. The Red Wings were back among the NHL’s elite teams this season, winning 47 games while scoring 104 points to finish second in the West.
Detroit has three legitimate scoring lines and a grinding fourth line that can occasionally surprise teams with its scoring ability. The Red Wings also have a solid goaltender in Jimmy Howard, who took over as No. 1 in place of Chris Osgood, and a lineup filled with players who have hoisted the Stanley Cup.
Still, they know how tough it is to beat a grinding team like Phoenix, especially if goalie Ilya Bryzgalov is on his game.
“We saw them last year in the playoffs and it was a tough series against them,” Red Wings defenseman Nicklas Lidstrom said. “It took seven games and they’re playing a very strong system, not giving up a lot, and Bryzgalov is playing well for them in nets. They’re a tough team to play again.”
Detroit has the home-ice advantage this season, but no one on either team is looking at it as much of an advantage.
Phoenix won Game 6 in the Motor City and knocked off the Red Wings in one of their trips there this season to split the season series.
Detroit hasn’t exactly been dominant at home this season either, losing 14 games at Joe Louis Arena aftera late-season stumble, and the Red Wings may be without leading scorer Henrik Zetterberg due to a knee injury.
Phoenix had a nearly identical home record, winning more on the road, just like the Red Wings.
“I’ve been through it a number of times, been through it a number of different ways — on a roll, going in bad, going in wondering if you’ll ever win again,” Red Wings coach Mike Babcock said. “There’s lots of different ways we’ve gone about our business here. Obviously, this isn’t what you draw up; you don’t want to go into the playoff playing the way we have, there’s no question about it.”