With the clock winding down in Game 5 between the Phoenix Coyotes and the Nashville Predators, the Coyotes leading 2-1 and the Predators' net empty, Shea Weber blasted the puck into the Phoenix end, hoping for one last push and a miracle.
Instead, Mike Smith snagged it in his trapper, dropped it to the ice, and fired it not just back out to center ice, but right over the neutral zone and towards the empty net.
It missed wide by a foot at the most. Smith made 32 saves in a Game 5 win; he was already the game's first star. Had he scored a goal as well, it would have brought the house down.
(Mind you, the other Smith in the game, Craig, probably breathed a sigh of relief. Can you imagine how silly he would have felt to watch Mike Smith hit the empty net from 200 feet away after he missed from within one?)
But, just 2 1/2 seconds later, when the final horn sounded on the Coyotes' fourth win in the Western Conference semifinal, eliminating the Predators, the Jobing.com Arena crowd had something else to cheer for: the Coyotes' first trip to the third round in the history of the franchise.
At the beginning of the season, the Coyotes launched the boldest ad campaign in the NHL, "Hockey the hard way." After two years of ownership turmoil, bankruptcy, city council meetings, failed negotiations, low payroll, low attendance, and every other distraction and obstacle a franchise could face, there was nothing left to do but own it.
"Instead of running away from that, or pretending it wasn't there," said John King, chief communications officer for Fallon, the ad agency behind the campaign, "when you combine all that stuff with making the playoffs, it makes them kind of the heroes."
Now there's no more "kind of." This group isn't full of "almost" heroes anymore. You don't punch your ticket to the third round without some real heroes emerging.
It starts with Mike Smith in net, the epitome of what the Coyotes are all about. At the beginning of the season, when the coaching staff said it'd be letting Smith and Jason LaBarbera duke it out for the starting job, people laughed. But Smith hasn't just been a replacement for Ilya Bryzgalov; he's been an upgrade, and now he's a frontrunner for the Conn Smythe.
How about Derek Morris, as hard-working a guy as you're going to find, playing over 25 minutes and even contributing a rare goal at that.
It was only the third time he's lit the lamp this season.
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Then there's Shane Doan, the Coyotes captain, who's been with this franchise his entire career, and is now rewarded for his patience and loyalty with his first career first trip to the Western Conference final at the age of 35.
At this point, even some of the Phoenix fans are heroes of a sort, long suffering supporters of a team people claimed shouldn't be there, that they they didn't deserve. This is what they get for sticking it out. After all they've been through, even the smug Canadian fans eager to pluck a team from a market they never felt deserved it have to admit this is a great story.
"The challenge we're up against is getting people to make an emotional investment with ongoing uncertainty surrounding the team," Fallon said back in October.
Until the ownership issues are sorted out — and Monday's press conference at which the NHL effectively gave Greg Jamison a promise ring was a cause for optimism in that regard — that's always going to be a struggle. But with two playoff rounds behind them, the Coyotes have made it a Hell of a lot easier.
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