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Saturday, May 19, 2012
Stakes are high for Coyotes

By Pierre LeBrun
ESPN.com

LOS ANGELES -- With their season hanging by a thread, it's hard not to wonder whether the Coyotes will be playing their last game as a Phoenix-based franchise Sunday.

It certainly adds a layer to what's already at stake, the team in a deep hole, down 3-0 to the Kings in the Western Conference finals.

And given their remarkable and surprising journey this season, a sweep would be a sad way to end it.

"You know, we've created a buzz in Phoenix that hasn't been there, probably forever ... generated some legitimate interest and excitement there, and nobody likes to get swept in any situation, but you know, with the uncertainty that's going on and the good year that we've had, you don't want to end it on a bad note like that," veteran Coyotes winger Ray Whitney said Saturday after practice.

"So we're going to do whatever we can to make sure that doesn't happen."

Given everything that's been thrown their way over the past three years, don't be surprised if the lunch-bucket Coyotes rain on the Staples Center party Sunday afternoon. It would be just their way to show the world wrong, as they have so many times before.

"We're just one of those teams that kind of gnaw away at you," smiled Whitney. "We're not that pretty to watch, but we get in there, and it would be fitting if we could do something like that.

"It's easier said than done with what we're playing against -- it's a pretty impressive display that we've been up against."

But if and when their season ends, the questions will quickly shift to their future off the ice.

Indications are that Greg Jamison has a plan to save and keep the team in the desert, but it's still not a done deal. Far from it. And so, when the Coyotes hit the ice Sunday, it's impossible not to consider the notion that we're possibly seeing the Desert Dogs play for the last time in those uniforms; impossible to know at this point, either way.

As far as Kings coach Darryl Sutter is concerned, hockey belongs in Phoenix. He said now that the team is winning, he feels it's a place where hockey can work.

"It's a good place to live, obviously, it's a good hockey team, that's kind of what everybody wants," Sutter said Saturday after practice. "Heck, I went to San Jose when they were a 60-some-point team; I went to Calgary when there was 8,000 or 9,000 people watching games. You know what? You get a good team and you play hard, you have a chance for people to watch. It'd be nice to keep that team in the league. That's how I look at it. I mean, everybody does, you guys do too, right? You want to go to Phoenix, we all do. It's a good building, good fans. When you got a good team, they'll come and watch. That's what you want."

The Kings, meanwhile, know what's in store for them Sunday. Their Pacific Division rivals aren't going to roll over.

"Phoenix is a tight group, a resilient group, they're the Pacific Division champs this year and they've battled through a lot of things," Kings captain Dustin Brown said. "They've showed character all year and it's going to be no different tomorrow. They're a prideful group and they're going to come out with everything they've got."

For the Kings, it's also about maintaining their focus. You can talk all you want about not looking ahead, but when you're a young team that's one win from the Stanley Cup finals, that's easier said than done.

Throw in the fact it's a charged weekend in and around Staples Center with an NBA playoff doubleheader Saturday, the Coyotes-Kings game Sunday followed by the Clippers' playoff game later Sunday, plus an international bike race Sunday morning, and you've got an incredible atmosphere.

"We've been pretty good on focusing on the things we need to do," star center Anze Kopitar said Saturday after practice. "We all know what's at stake. It's just a matter of getting focused on the moment. That's what you have to do in the playoffs. Once you get caught looking ahead or back, you get caught daydreaming and that's not obviously very good."

Kopitar expects a raucous Staples Center Sunday.

"The loudest I ever heard Staples Center was Game 4 against St. Louis," Kopitar said. "Those last couple of minutes were pretty electric. Even a couple of days ago was fun. It's not going to be any different tomorrow."

For core Kopitar, Brown, Drew Doughty and Jonathan Quick, this is all new. They had never won a playoff round before, let alone had a chance to get to a Stanley Cup finals. Sunday will test their ability to focus.

"You continue to try to harp detail on them," Sutter said when asked about his team's ability to not look ahead. "Hopefully they have the preparation skills to do that."

Sutter later added: "You have to be able to channel all that, because if you don't, it doesn't work, right? There has to be discipline and control. I'm not a rocket scientist, they are people."

They are indeed human. It's hard to ignore what's happening around them.

"Everyone talks about getting to the Stanley Cup finals, but I can only speak for myself, playing in that game tomorrow is pretty fun as well," Brown said. "It's one of those things where you have to really enjoy the journey. We're one game away from the Cup finals. These games are tough, though."

The Kings, to a man, say they're just trying to enjoy the journey while staying in the moment.

"Experience is experience, right? It's awesome for the young guys," Sutter said. "They haven't had it, most of them hadn't even won a playoff game. So why not experience the experience? It's the best part of it. Why shouldn't they be able to do that. It's the only way you get it, otherwise you go watch another team play."