First to worst.
Pacific Division champions just a year ago, the Phoenix Coyotes' fall from grace was clear and abrupt.
Coming into their final three games of the season, the Coyotes occupied the Pacific basement and were eliminated from Stanley Cup playoff contention Wednesday night. This represents a difficult reality for a team which overachieved a year ago and now has crashed and burned.
In their third-to-last game of the season, the Coyotes forgot their bleak station, played for pride and character and defeated the visiting San Jose Sharks, 2-1, Wednesday night before 12,588 fans in the Jobing.com Arena.
Though the “pride factor” was brought up several times among players and coach Dave Tippett in postgame remarks, that intangible did not mask the difficulty and trouble of the season nearly behind.
“The way we played showed the character and heart of this team,” defenseman Keith Yandle said. “At this point, we would like to play for something but right now, it’s for pride.”
During the week of training camp in mid-January, Tippett and his coaching staff talked about the importance of every standing point. No room or margin for error, Tippett told reporters after the San Jose game, but the Coyotes collectively could not gain the points they needed.
The decline was as abrupt as it was immediate.
After reaching the NHL’s equivalent of the final four last spring, the Coyotes’ start of this shortened season foreshadowed the subsequent malaise. Dropping four of their first five games, they never recovered from a dismal beginning.
Looking back in the rearview mirror, lack of scoring represented a significant factor in the Coyotes demise. Plus, their lack of efficiency on the power play was a related factor.
“Maybe the defense did not have the kind of year we wanted,” Yandle added. “Then again, it’s not easy to score in this league.”
With three games remaining, Phoenix was 28th in the NHL in power play production. With the three left, the Coyotes converted only 22 times in 157 chances. Against the Sharks Wednesday night, the Coyotes were 1-for-4 with the man advantage, and that percentage clearly eclipsed the 14.0 percent prior to the game.
Defensively, lack of concentration and giveaways were also contributing factors.
For a prime example, look no further than the Sharks game of April 24.
Leading 2-0 early in the second period, defenseman Oliver Ekman-Larsson tried to send the puck out his own end with a pass up the middle. His pass was intercepted by San Jose defenseman Brett Burns, who rifled a 30-footer past Phoenix goalie Mike Smith for an unassisted goal.
Yet, defensive lapses do not come close to explaining the Coyotes' downfall. Without an entrance to the playoffs, the obvious became obvious.
“We showed a pretty strong character,” Smith said, who turned away 33 of 34 San Jose shots to improve his season mark to 15-12-4. “We don’t like the position we’re in, but the effort showed we still have the will to win.”
With now two to play, the pride factor continues as a driving force.
With Detroit’s win over the Kings Wednesday night, the Coyotes were officially eliminated from postseason play. Despite that hardened reality, Tippett and players assured the media the team will skate with a purpose.
“There’s great leadership in the (locker) room,” Tippett said. (Captain Shane) Doan will make sure no one backs off.”
After Saturday’s finale with the Ducks in Anaheim, the pressing questions facing this franchise may occupy more headlines than during the season.
First, the future of the team must be decided. Over the past two years, the NHL, which owns the Coyotes, is not interested in operation. The league’s sole interest is to maintain a physical franchise operating out of the Phoenix market.
Buyers and suitors, please come forward and identify yourself.
Of course, key contracts should be addressed.
Smith’s agreement with Phoenix expires this summer, as do the contracts of coach Dave Tippett and Don Maloney, the team’s general manager. Plus, nearly a dozen players do not have contracts for next season.
The upcoming offseason could be filled with more headlines than the previous months of NHL competition.
Mark Brown is a Featured Columnist for Bleacher Report. Unless otherwise noted, all quotes were obtained firsthand.