SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. -- The temperature was just a smidge under 100 degrees when the Phoenix Coyotes landed back in Arizona on Friday afternoon with some cool souvenirs – a pair of overtime wins over the Blackhawks – packed away in the luggage to remind them of an unforgettable trip to Chicago.
The players didn't seem to notice the heat. That's what happens when you've been living on the edge and forced to play in postseason mode for more than two months.
Left for dead in and in 12th place in the Western Conference at the end of January, Phoenix had no choice but to adopt a do-or-die attitude on the spot. That mantra carried them through an 11-0-1 February, a five-game winning streak to end the season and the first division title in franchise history – one that seemed impossible a week earlier.
So after four skintight Stanley Cup Playoff games in which the teams have been separated by more than one goal for less than three minutes – total – and all of them have been decided in overtime? What's the big deal? Three OT goals, the last two by Mikkel Boedker, have the Coyotes up 3-1 in a series for the first time in 13 years, but in no way feeling that they have the Blackhawks where they want them.
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The Coyotes aren't numb to the pressure. They just seem to have found a comfort zone amid the white noise.
"We've had no margin for error for months now. Every game has been a playoff game for how long? Three months?" Phoenix captain Shane Doan said. "At some point, we decided as a team that we wanted this, and that we had the people in the room to get it done.
"That's what you have to find the mindset that whatever comes up, whatever injuries occur and whatever obstacles are put in front of you -- that you have nothing to lose and the only response is to just go for it and try to get it done together."
Three times, the Coyotes have squandered a one-goal lead in the final minutes after the Blackhawks emptied their net to storm Phoenix goaltender Mike Smith. Twice, the Coyotes picked themselves up, brushed off the ice chips and answered with a winning goal in overtime. The two teams are dead even with nine goals in regulation but the determined Desert Dogs have outscored Chicago 3-1 when it matters most – in sudden death.
"That first one we got (by Martin Hanzal in Game 1) showed us that just because we didn't close out the game in regulation, it wasn't over. We just had to win it again," said Smith, who thoroughly enjoyed being booed by 22,000 fans in the United Center every time he touched the puck during Games 3 and 4. "Obviously, we don't want to be in that situation again. But if we are, we know we have the capability to atone in overtime. We can make it right. That makes a big difference."
The Coyotes haven't won playoff series in 25 years and have been in this position since 1999, when they had a 3-1 lead and home ice against the St. Louis Blues in a series than has so many similarities it's downright spooky:
In that series, the Coyotes had to play without their No. 1 center (Jeremy Roenick) and two other key forwards (Greg Adams and Juha Ylonen) and lost home ice to the Blues. But Phoenix went to St. Louis and swept two games with the help of some unlikely heroes. Scrapper Louie DeBrusk, who didn't score a single goal in the regular season, had two to win Game 3. And a 22-year-old right wing named Shane Doan had a game-winner in overtime in Game 4 to announce his presence.
Fast-forward to 2012. The Coyotes are without their No. 1 center (Martin Hanzal) and two other key forwards (Lauri Korpikoski and Raffi Torres) and lost home ice to the Blackhawks. But Phoenix went to Chicago and swept two games thanks to unlikely heroes (a goal and two assists by Rostislav Klesla) and a pair of game-winners in overtime by a 22-year-old right winger named Boedker.
None of that is news to Chicago coach Joel Quenneville. He was the coach of that 1999 Blues team.
Of course, this is where the Coyotes want to flip the scrip. They no longer want to party like it's 1999. The Blues stormed back to win the final three games of the series – winning in overtime in Phoenix in both Game 5 and Game 7, when Pierre Turgeon got the only goal in an excruciating 1-0 game.
Doan knows from experience that nothing is over. In case he needs further proof, the Blackhawks rallied from a 3-0 deficit last year to take Vancouver to overtime in Game 7 before succumbing. But Doan doesn't expect a letdown from his teammates because they have no idea how to play that way.
"We play our game. We know that anything short of everything we have from everyone we have won't be good enough," he said. "The first three wins have been as tough as they come, but the last one is the toughest of all."