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Phoenix Coyotes escape extinction

Of all the places the Phoenix Coyotes were rumored to be this season and all the places they’ve been — including U.S. Bankruptcy Court, where they were purchased by the NHL — they’ve landed in the most unexpected place of all: the playoffs.

The Coyotes are fourth in the West, setting franchise records for points, wins and home wins while earning their first postseason berth since 2002. The team that was abandoned by its owner and all but a few fans, the team whose iconic coach — a guy named Wayne Gretzky — resigned nine days before the season started has become a phenomenon in the desert.

“I thought in September we could be a playoff team if we got great goaltending. I thought our personnel was maybe better than people thought,” General Manager Don Maloney said.

“But to have 100 points and be in the playoffs, rather than scratching and clawing and praying to be in the playoffs, it’s rewarding and satisfying. We’re probably a little bit ahead of where I thought we’d be.”

No one was sure last summer where the Coyotes would be physically or competitively. Blackberry billionaire Jim Balsillie failed in an effort to buy them and move them to Hamilton, Canada. Their ancestral home of Winnipeg was another possible destination.

When Gretzky stepped down, the Coyotes appeared doomed to play out the string before crowds of dozens. But Maloney’s hiring of former Dallas coach Dave Tippett, the superb goaltending of Ilya Bryzgalov, and the development of a fleet of speedy youngsters turned the team into the surprise of the NHL.

The financial future remains clouded for the Coyotes, who have sold out three consecutive games and will play host to Nashville on Wednesday before facing the Kings on Thursday at Staples Center. But it’s clear Maloney, Tippett and the players have done an exceptional job under extraordinary circumstances.

“I don’t pay any attention to any of the rumors. My job is to put a winning team on the ice, and Dave Tippett and the staff have done a nice job keeping all those challenges outside the locker room,” Maloney said.

“You have to put out a good product, you have to win, you have to get to the playoffs, you have to win in the playoffs. And if you do, you’ll be supported. If you don’t, over time then you won’t be. Our goal this season was to give ourselves every possible chance to stay in Phoenix. I think we’ve done that so far.”

Maloney improved those chances with two notable deadline-day trades. Lee Stempniak, acquired from Toronto, and Wojtek Wolski, acquired from Colorado for talented but unhappy Peter Mueller, have provided much-needed secondary scoring. The Coyotes lost their first game after the Olympic break but won their next nine games as Stempniak scored 13 goals in March.

There was some grumbling around the league after the Coyotes, owned by the NHL and theoretically funded by the other 29 teams, expanded their payroll at the deadline. Maloney said he had the approval of Bill Daly, a league deputy commissioner, for every move and that he keeps Daly informed as he signs junior and college players.

“It’s the same budget we’ve been operating under all year,” Maloney said. “We’ve really watched our nickels and dimes so we could add some quality at the trade deadline.

“From the outside, people are probably looking and saying, ‘What happened in Phoenix? Did they find a pot of gold?’ But that’s not the case at all. As long as we stayed within the agreed-upon budget we were fine.”

The Coyotes have slipped a bit lately, going 1-3-1 in their last five, but that’s nothing given what they’ve been through.

“We still have to pick up our socks,” Maloney said. “You lose two games and you feel like the world is going to end.

“It’s interesting, that’s for sure.”

helene.elliott@latimes.com

twitter.com/helenenothelen


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