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Another surprise: Phoenix Coyotes clinch Pacific Division title

By Adam Gretz | Hockey writer
The Florida Panthers weren't the only team that was able to celebrate its first ever division title on Saturday night, as the Phoenix Coyotes were also able to join the club, clinching the Pacific Division crown with a 4-1 win in Minnesota.

Like the Panthers, the Coyotes rise to the top of their division is a pretty big surprise.When they lost goaltender Ilya Bryzgalov -- viewed as the most significant piece of their roster -- over the summer, expectations dropped and they were picked by many to miss the postseason after back-to-back trips under head coach Dave Tippett.

Not only did the Coyotes make a third consecutive playoff appearance, they did so by winning the division and finding a goaltender in free agency, Mike Smith, that ended up performing better than Bryzgalov did this season in Philadelphia, and perhaps even better than he did in Phoenix.

In the end, Smith is going to be perhaps the biggest reason for the Coyotes success this season, finishing the regular season in the top-four in save percentage, playing behind a team that surrendered quite a few shots over the course of the season, while also finishing just 19th in goals scored. He's been outstanding from the start, but seems to have saved his best hockey for the end of the season. Over his past five starts Smith has surrendered just two goals, including the one he allowed on Saturday, and stopped 190 of a possible 192 shots.

Perhaps the best news of the night for the Coyotes, arguably even better than winning the division, is that they won't have to open up the postseason against the Detroit Red Wings, as they had to do in each of the past two seasons, resulting in a pair of first-round exits. Because Detroit lost to Chicago earlier on Saturday, the Coyotes, as the third-seed in the Western Conference, will open up in the first-round against the Chicago Blackhawks.

Chicago has the better talent up front and on the blue line, but with the way Smith has played this season, and especially recently, he gives them a sizable advantage in the crease and could be the difference-maker. And they very well might need him to be.

Oh, and while we're at it let's just give the Jack Adams Award to Tippett every season. It will probably just save everybody a bunch of time when it comes to voting.

For more hockey news, rumors and analysis, follow @EyeOnHockey and @agretz on Twitter and like us on Facebook.
 
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