EL SEGUNDO, Calif. - For three years now, coach Dave Tippett has kept the Phoenix Coyotes together when they had every off-ice reason to fall apart. When they struggled to fill their rink, when the franchise seemed headed to Winnipeg, Tippett and his players kept improving and winning.
Now that they're stuck in a 0-3 hole in the Western Conference finals against an opponent seemingly touched by playoff destiny, Tippett and the Coyotes still aren't folding against maybe their longest odds yet.
In Game 4 on Sunday, the Los Angeles Kings will attempt to clinch just their second trip to the Stanley Cup final. The Coyotes still haven't given up hope of reaching their first.
"There's nothing to say now," Tippett said after the Coyotes' late-afternoon workout Saturday at the Kings' training complex. "We've got to win. Hopefully we can push it back to Phoenix and keep the series going."
Only three NHL teams have overcome this daunting deficit, but Phoenix is confident it has resources it hasn't tapped while getting outscored 10-3 so far by the eighth-seeded Kings, who have lost just once in 12 playoff games.
The Coyotes know Los Angeles better than most opponents after splitting the six-game season series and finishing two points ahead of the Kings for the Pacific Division title, so they know it's possible to beat L.A.
Doing it has been another matter entirely.
"Being down 3-0 is a big enough mountain, and then this team is rolling pretty good," Coyotes forward Ray Whitney said of the Kings. "We realize how difficult it's going to be, but we're not throwing everything in."
If the Coyotes were the quitting types, they all would have fled the desert a few years ago when the club went into bankruptcy and became ownerless. They were written off as a financial disaster of the NHL's southern land rush of the 1990s, a struggling club that would eventually wind up in Winnipeg, Hamilton, Quebec City or someplace else where ice doesn't melt quite so quickly.
But the Coyotes have thrived under those dire circumstances ever since Tippett took over from Wayne Gretzky in 2009. With financial worries and tiny crowds—Phoenix was last in the NHL in attendance this season, too—the Coyotes have made three straight playoff appearances, culminating in this unprecedented run to the conference final.
"We've had that motivation for most of the year," Whitney said. "We had that in the first two rounds. Everybody else counting us out, that was happening before this season started, so that's not a new motivation."
Yet the Coyotes' dream season has been interrupted by the harsh reality of the Kings, who have realized their enormous potential during a stunning run through the first 2 1/2 rounds of the post-season. Los Angeles goalie Jonathan Quick has allowed just 17 goals in 12 games, and the Kings' low-scoring offence has become potent, averaging just over three goals per game.
Although Los Angeles coach Darryl Sutter would prefer to finish off the Coyotes on Sunday, thereby earning at least a full week off for his team before the Stanley Cup final, he's appreciative of Tippett's abilities and the Coyotes' tenacity against long odds to thrive in Phoenix in an increasingly dire situation.
"It's a good place to live, (and) it's a good hockey team," Sutter said. "That's what everybody wants. Heck, I went to (Phoenix with) San Jose when they were a 60-some-point team. I went to (Phoenix with) Calgary, when there were 8,000 or 9,000 people watching games. If you get a good team, generally you get a chance for people to watch. It would be nice to keep that team in the league. That's the way everybody looks at it."
Sutter might like Phoenix, but he's not eager to go back to Arizona for Game 5 on Tuesday. If the Kings return to the form they've showed in the first three games, that probably won't be a problem.
Phoenix started strong against the Kings in Game 3, controlling the puck and creating multiple scoring chances—and even taking its first lead of the series early in the second period. Los Angeles responded with the same brutal efficiency that has characterized its entire post-season, forechecking and backchecking the Coyotes into turnovers, bad defensive coverages and, ultimately, submission.
When the Coyotes needed to force the offensive attack in the third period, they failed—not even managing a shot on goal in the final nine-plus minutes of Game 3.
"We've played three pretty good games against them, but we know we can play better," said Kings defenceman Drew Doughty, who took in a Lakers playoff game with teammate Mike Richards on Friday night. "We know this next game is going to be their best, especially that first 5 minutes. We have to be prepared from the drop."
Phoenix can look into recent NHL history to see how this comeback is accomplished. Philadelphia rallied from 0-3 down against Boston in the second round just two seasons ago, a nugget that's known to every Coyotes player at this point.
The Coyotes had the day off Friday before a solid practice Saturday. They realize their biggest obstacle in Game 4 could be the enormous mental pressure of thinking about an 0-3 deficit. That's why Tippett is emphasizing only the small improvements, with the hope they'll lead to something huge for a franchise that has repeatedly found ways to surprise.
"It would be a great story, something I wish I could tell my kids down the road," Phoenix forward Antoine Vermette said. "It's possible. ... When you face elimination, you play for your season, put everything out there. That's all you can ask. It could be overwhelming if you think of the big picture."