The Coyotes Know Where They Are

The Phoenix Coyotes' matchup against the Detroit Red Wings, which starts Wednesday night, is a surprise on many levels. It is a showdown between an unheralded team and the league's longest-running power — hockey in the desert versus Hockeytown.

But perhaps the most surprising fact is simply that the Coyotes still exist.

After going into bankruptcy protection last spring, the Coyotes needed an entire summer of court proceedings to determine that they would stay in Arizona rather than relocate to Hamilton, Ontario. The N.H.L. took over the team's ownership, yet despite the turmoil, the Coyotes surged into the topmost reaches of the Western Conference after missing the playoffs for six straight seasons.

But even now there are questions about what will happen to the Coyotes next season. The city of Glendale, which owns the Coyotes' home rink, Jobing.com Arena, recently signed preliminary lease agreements with two competing ownership candidates: Ice Edge Holdings, a group of Canadian and American investors that includes a former Arizona attorney general; and Glendale Hockey, a group headed by Jerry Reinsdorf, the owner of the Chicago White Sox and the Chicago Bulls.

The separate agreements, termed "memos of understanding," are different; both, however, call for a name change to the Arizona Coyotes. Should both purchase attempts founder, the team could wind up moving — perhaps to Winnipeg, Manitoba, its original home.

Meanwhile, the Coyotes' general manager, Don Maloney, is the top candidate to be selected executive of the year for engineering a series of smart in-season acquisitions on a tight budget. The coach, Dave Tippett, took over at the start of the season for Wayne Gretzky, who resigned amid criticism that he was drawing too big a salary. Tippett is the leading candidate for the Jack Adams Award as coach of the year.

The Coyotes drew a league-low average of 11,989 to their games in Glendale, a hard-to-reach western suburb in the traffic-choked Valley of the Sun, but attendance went up considerably after New Year's, and the season ended with four straight sellouts.

For this series, the Coyotes are trying to revive an old Winnipeg tradition: the playoff whiteout, in which the fans show up wearing white. A potential problem: the large diaspora of Detroiters who live in the Phoenix area and are liable to spoil the whiteout with splotches of red.

The Red Wings, whose late-season surge put them in the playoffs for a 19th straight season — the longest current streak in North American major team sports — are healthy after losing more than 300 man-games to injury. Along with Nicklas Lidstrom and Henrik Zetterberg, their best player may by the rookie goalie Jimmy Howard, who finished the season with a 13-0-2 run.

The Coyotes are led by Shane Doan, their 33-year-old captain and No. 2 scorer, who has been with the club since 1995-96, its last season in Winnipeg.

"Things were a little bit of a mess," Doan said of the mood in the dressing room at the start of the season, "but we thought we had a chance to make the playoffs."

Elsewhere in the West, the San Jose Sharks face the Colorado Avalanche after winning the conference title for a third straight season, but they are perennial playoff disappointments.

Vancouver Canucks goalie Roberto Luongo is hoping to follow his Olympic gold medal with Canada with a Stanley Cup ring, a pursuit that will begin against the Los Angeles Kings. Henrik Sedin is the first Canuck to win the N.H.L. scoring title in the club's 40-season history.

The young Chicago Blackhawks are one of the league's glamour teams, but their playoff run, which starts against the Nashville Predators, could founder on the shaky goalkeeping of Antti Niemi and Cristobal Huet.

In the East, the Philadelphia Flyers qualified for a first-round matchup versus the Devils only because they won a season-ending shootout against the Rangers.

Two other Eastern teams were every bit as mediocre this season as the Flyers: the Montreal Canadiens, who are given little chance against Alex Ovechkin and the Washington Capitals, the league's No. 1 finishers; and the Boston Bruins, who face the Buffalo Sabres and their Olympic M.V.P. goalie, Ryan Miller. The defending Cup champions, the Pittsburgh Penguins, play the Ottawa Senators. The Penguins have Sidney Crosby, scorer of the Olympic gold-medal-winning goal, and Evgeni Malkin, last year's playoff M.V.P., but is coming off a disappointing regular season. Who will win the Stanley Cup this time around? Do not rule out the Coyotes. The Devils won the Stanley Cup in 1995 despite the real possibility that they were about to relocate to Nashville.

 

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