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posted: 4/8/2012 9:33 PM

Hawks' first-round foe on a winning streak

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  • Coyotes goalie Mike Smith allowed only 2 goals during the team's five-game winning streak to close the regular season.

      Coyotes goalie Mike Smith allowed only 2 goals during the team's five-game winning streak to close the regular season.
    Associated Press

 
 

If you want an idea of how much the Phoenix Coyote's Pacific Division clinching victory Saturday in Minnesota meant to the city of Phoenix, all you have to do is check out the YouTube video of the airport reception the team received on its return.

There in the predawn hours, hundreds upon hundreds of die-hard fans, many waving signs, lined the route as Coyotes players drove by smiling and high-fiving the faithful from their cars.

It was celebration time in Phoenix, because for the first time ever the Coyotes were division champions.

"It was unreal," Coyotes captain Shane Doan told reporters. "Our fans in Phoenix over the last three years have taken a little bit of a beating with outside media pointing things out and trying to say negative things.

"(Sunday morning) there must have been 1,000 to 1,500 people waiting for us at the airport. It was pretty cool. It was something that you didn't expect. As a player, that's the first time I've ever had that here in the valley."

See what a division title will do for an organization and its fans?

"It feels good; good for our team, our organization, fun to be a part of," defenseman Keith Yandle said. "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."

And that's especially true for Doan, who 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.

Now Phoenix, which finished 1 point ahead of San Jose in the Pacific, opens the postseason Thursday night against the Blackhawks.

They Coyotes will try to make history again by getting past the first round for the first time since moving to Phoenix.

Phoenix enters the postseason on a roll having won five games in a row. But the Hawks have been hot of late as well, going 6-1-3 in their final 10 games.

"Playing Chicago is going to be tough," Doan said. "You look at their forwards and the depth they have up front starting with (Jonathan) Toews and (Patrick) Kane. Then you look at (Patrick) Sharp, (Marian) Hossa, (Dave) Bolland.

"All the guys that they have have experience and they've been in the playoffs awhile. We have to make sure that we play our best game. It's going to be tough."

The Hawks were just 1-2-1 against the Coyotes in the regular season, but Doan said you can go ahead and toss those numbers.

"If we had lost all four, we'd say it doesn't mean anything," Doan said. "It means we definitely feel confident going in.

"But at the same time it doesn't get us an extra win. It doesn't get us anything. It just means that we think we have the capabilities of playing with them."

Phoenix goalie Mike Smith allowed just 2 goals during the five-game winning streak to close the season. He finished 38-18-10 with a 2.21 goals-against average and 8 shutouts.

"He's embraced the No. 1 goaltender role with our team, and he's played excellent," Phoenix coach Dave 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."

The Coyotes can enjoy their division title a few more days, but then it's down to the real business at hand.

"It means a lot in the fact that we won," Doan said. "But we want to win the Stanley Cup."

Imagine the celebration then.

•Associated Press contributed.

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