But the Phoenix Coyotes are going back to the postseason, even if they truly did it the hard way.
When captain Shane Doan became the first Coyote to reach 20 goals this season, Phoenix had what looked like an insurmountable 4-1 lead with less than 12 minutes left in Friday night's game against San Jose. But the Sharks, looking for their ninth straight win against the Coyotes, shaved the lead to one and had several shots at an equalizer in the final minute before Phoenix hung on for a wild 4-3 win.
"We don't do anything easy," said center Eric Belanger, who assisted on second-period goals by Ray Whitney and Radim Vrbata that snapped a 1-1 tie. "We looked like we had it in the bag at 4-1, but we started sitting back. We can't shut it down, we have to keep going and luckily it didn't cost us this game.
"We needed that win more than they did. To have 97 points and not be in the playoffs … that's incredible. Now we can breathe a little bit."
The victory clinched a second straight trip to the Stanley Cup playoffs - Phoenix is going in back-to-back seasons for the first time since doing in five times in a row from 1996-2000 - but the Coyotes can still finish anywhere from fourth to eighth as they end the season Saturday night in San Jose.
"Now we don't have to look at Dallas or anybody else. We just have to worry about ourselves and playing the best we can," said Vrbata, who scored in his 600th NHL game. "We attacked more tonight, we put pressure in them and we played the way we'll need to play to have success in the playoffs."
Phoenix had gone 0-5-3 against the Sharks since beating them 2-1 on Dec. 12, 2009, at Jobing.com Arena., and they flirted with danger once again. Joe Thornton collected his 1,000th NHL point by batting a puck out of midair and past Ilya Bryzgalov with 10:33 left and Dany Heatley scored San Jose's second 4-on-4 goal of the game with 3:39 to go to make it 4-3. But Bryzgalov made two of his 24 saves in the final minute to win his 130th game as a Coyote -- breaking Bob Essensa's franchise record.
San Jose goalie Antti Niemi lost in regulation for the first time in 10 games since March 14, but the Sharks remained one point ahead of Detroit for second place in the West. Both teams have the same foes again to close the season - Phoenix at San Jose on Saturday and Detroit at Chicago on Sunday.
Ian White also scored for the Sharks. San Jose played without forwards Ryan Clowe and Devin Setoguchi - who sat out after suffering an undisclosed injury in warm-ups - and had to dress seven defensemen and mix-and-match lines.
"That's all we had," coach Todd McLellan said. "I thought we had a number of players that had pretty good games, and a number of key people we count on bobbled or fumbled the puck around a bit too much. We tried to get a little too cute and it ended up being a little too risky."
The Sharks also had some bad luck in the second period. After White matched a goal by Phoenix's Andrew Ebbett to tie the game at 1-1, Jamal Mayers of the Sharks rang a shot off the left post from just right of the slot.
Phoenix quickly turned the play the other way. Doan took a Belanger feed and found Whitney in the slot from the right corner. Whitney had half a net to shoot at and rifled home his 17th goal at 8:57 to put Phoenix back in front.
Less than three minutes later, it happened again. Thornton clanged a shot off the post, and when teammate Dan Boyle fanned on the rebound, the Coyotes were off to the races. Belanger slid a feed across the crease to Vrbata, who banked it in off the post at 11;31 to give the Coyotes a two-goal bulge.
"Sometimes that's the breaks you need right there," Phoenix coach Dave Tippett said. "We were shaking our heads on the bench. We give up a good chance on one end and Belanger (is so tired) he can hardly make it up the ice for the odd-man rush but we hit the post and it goes in.
"I had real good feeling about today. We gave up a couple of late goals that I wasn't crazy about, but we competed hard and found a way to score some goals on them."
The Coyotes had a healthy roster for the first time since Jan. 17 when Martin Hanzal returned after missing 13 games with an upper-body injury. He played 15 minutes and won 11 of 15 faceoffs while keeping Thornton in check most of the night.
"We didn't want it come down to that last game for sure," said Doan, who missed four of seven playoff games with Detroit last spring due to a separated shoulder. "It was a playoff game for us. It's crazy that you need 100 points and that we had to play 81 just to have a chance to play some more."
|Andrew Ebbett (2) ASST: Kyle Turris (14)|
1 - 0 PHX
|Ian White (3) ASST: Niclas Wallin (5), Torrey Mitchell (13)|
1 - 1 Tie
|Ray Whitney (17) ASST: Shane Doan (40), Eric Belanger (26)|
2 - 1 PHX
|Radim Vrbata (19) ASST: Eric Belanger (27)|
3 - 1 PHX
|PPG - Shane Doan (20) ASST: Radim Vrbata (29), Lauri Korpikoski (21)|
4 - 1 PHX
|Joe Thornton (21) ASST: Logan Couture (24), Douglas Murray (13)|
4 - 2 PHX
|Dany Heatley (26) ASST: Patrick Marleau (35), Jason Demers (22)|
4 - 3 PHX
|Torrey Mitchell Holding against Taylor Pyatt|
|Andrew Desjardins Hi-sticking against Michal Rozsival|
|Scott Nichol Interference against Andrew Ebbett|
|Kyle Turris Interference against Marc-Edouard Vlasic|
|Logan Couture Interference against Vernon Fiddler|
|Lauri Korpikoski Holding against Kyle Wellwood|
|Douglas Murray Holding against Eric Belanger|
|Keith Yandle Interference against Ben Eager|
|Martin Hanzal Cross checking against Torrey Mitchell|
|Torrey Mitchell Slashing against Martin Hanzal|