GLENDALE, Ariz. – Dave Tippett said he felt the Phoenix Coyotes were a playoff team when he took the job – less than two weeks before the start of the regular season. He knew his feeling was dead on two games into the regular season, when the Coyotes went into Pittsburgh and shut out Sidney Crosby and the Penguins.
The rest of the NHL? That took a lot longer to convince.
But Saturday morning, while the Coyotes geared up for their second straight home sellout against Colorado, Calgary was blanked 5-0 in Boston and Phoenix officially wrapped up their first Stanley Cup playoff berth since 2002.
Before a bank of six television cameras and about two dozen media – another type of crowd that hasn't shown up for a Coyotes game in awhile – Tippett came out of the Phoenix dressing room two hours before faceoff and called it "just the first step" for a team with bigger goals in mind.
"I feel like teams should make the playoffs every year, it's the first step in the process," he said. "Phoenix hasn't been in the playoffs in a few years, so we'll look at that as an accomplishment. But if you ask anyone in our room, we knew we were a playoff team a month ago.
"Now, we're looking to continue to build. It's nice when they put that 'X' next to your name, but we have a lot more to accomplish."
Tippett said he was happy for longtime Coyote veterans like captain Shane Doan and defenseman Ed Jovanovski, who have annually endured tough seasons and early off-season in the desert.
"When you're not in the postseason for awhile, you see a lot of friends and people you know well in there and they're having so much fun … you know you're missing out," Tippett said. "And guys like that are going to have to big a big part of our team if we're going to have success in the postseason.
"From the trade deadline, when we were buyers instead of sellers for a change, they've had a little extra jump in their step."
A financial mess off the ice, the Coyotes have managed to steer clear of the outside distractions by playing winning hockey all season, with Tippett's system and Ilya Bryzgalov -- a potential candidate for the Hart Trophy -- leading the way.
A nine-game winning streak and a run of 34 points over 21 games has put Phoenix within striking distance of San Jose and Chicago for the top spot in both the Pacific Division and Western Conference. But just as importantly, it's earned them a seven-point cushion in the battle for fourth place in the West and home ice in the first round of the playoffs – and avoiding the Sharks, Blackhawks and Vancouver Canucks as opponents.
"We have to continue to get better and make sure we're playing well at the right time," Tippett said. "We have to get our game to the top level and if we do that we have a chance to finish in a good position."
Tippett pointed to general manager Don Maloney's trade deadline acquisitions of Wojtek Wolski, Lee Stempniak, Derek Morris, Petteri Nokelainen and Mathieu Schneider – all of them on the ice Saturday against the Avalanche – as the reason the Coyotes have jumped from playoff contenders to a team with designs on pushing further.
"We addressed the depth issues here and made us a strong, well-rounded team," he said. "We have eight or nine very good defensemen in the organization. We have forwards in the minors with NHL experience, good depth at forwards."
The Coyotes have also done things the hard way, playing in 38 one-goal games and winning 27 of them including 17 in overtime of shootout situations – just the kind of games Phoenix should expect from here on out.
"Those games are very much like playoff games – very tight, in a tough atmosphere where every play can have a bearing on the outcome," Tippett said. "We've played a lot of those games, and hopefully that helps."