GLENDALE, Ariz. -- With the first division title in franchise history and home ice in the first round of the playoffs secure, Phoenix Coyotes fans are already showing a few symptoms of Stanley Cup fever.
More than 300 fans were waiting well past midnight for the Coyotes charter to land at Sky Harbor International Airport after Saturday's division-clinching win at Minnesota. Captain Shane Doan was high-fiving fans from the window of his truck while goalie Mike Smith and defenseman Keith Yandle traded smiles and handshakes with the faithful insomniacs.
But odds makers aren't as impressed with Phoenix's strong finish and high seed. They ranked the Coyotes last among the 16 teams when it comes to chance of winning the Stanley Cup. Many are picking the Chicago Blackhawks to send Phoenix home in the first round for the eighth straight time since moving to Arizona -- and history is on their side.
The last time the franchise won a playoff series, it was located in Winnipeg and Ronald Reagan was president (1986-87). Now, 23 years and 12 playoff failures later -- including three Game 7 losses, two of them on home ice -- the Coyotes will try it again, this time with division banner in tow.
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"We've been laughing after someone told us we were the longest odds to win the Cup," Doan said. "Those are the same people who picked us (to finish) 14th in the West before the season and here we are.
"We've never won a playoff series, but we'd never won a division either. It's something you can't wait to have the opportunity to answer. We have home ice and if we can win four of the next seven games we can put that stuff to bed as well."
The additions of Kyle Chipchura, Boyd Gordon, Oliver Ekman-Larsson, Daymond Langkow and Raffi Torres have made the Coyotes deeper and tougher. Smith has put up great numbers and is a leader in the dressing room. Coach Dave Tippett has nine defensemen to choose from for Game 1 on Thursday, and his third and fourth lines have more punch, grit and experience than his previous two playoff teams.
But even with Smith playing at the top of his game, that alone won't be enough.
"If we're going to be successful, the way it has to be for us is: Sum of all the parts, and not just a couple," Tippett said. If you look at our group and how we go about building our team, we rely on everyone to do their job. Goal scorers and goalies get a lot of the accolades, but we have a lot of guys in the trenches that really help us win."
Chicago has the superstar names, the superior offense and the playoff pedigree -- just two years removed from a Stanley Cup win. But the Coyotes are proud of their season and don't agree with the "no-name" label attached to their roster.
"Any defense in the league would love to have a Keith Yandle or an Oliver Ekman-Larsson," Doan said. "Before he (missed two weeks in March), Radim Vrbata was second or third in the League in goals. Ray Whitney has 1,000 points -- it's not like he's out there playing senior hockey.
"We recognize we don't have the names that other teams have. But every athlete has an ego, and we like to think we have some stars in this room."
And the Coyotes have matched up very well with the Blackhawks since Tippett took over as coach.
In 2008-09 with Wayne Gretzky behind the bench, the Coyotes lost all four games against Chicago and were outscored by a lopsided 20-4 margin.
In three years since, playing Tippett's aggressive, responsible and demanding style, Phoenix is 8-3-1 in 12 games against the Blackhawks and has outscored their potent lineup by a 32-26 margin -- including 13-9 this season (including shootouts.)
And with Vrbata scoring the most goals (35) by a Coyote in more than a decade (Keith Tkachuk in 1998-99) and Whitney collecting the most assists (53) since Phil Housley in 1992-93, Phoenix feels like it has enough offense if it stays true to its system and gets contributions up and down the lineup.
"Look at any of our four lines and they have the capability of being our best line on a given night -- and that's huge," Doan said. "In the playoffs, teams find ways to shut down your top scorers and even the second-line guys. It's those third- and fourth-line guys that wind up getting five goals in a series and makes all the difference. I have a lot of confidence in this group."