The Clarence Campbell Bowl was in Staples Center for the first time, waiting to be presented by Commissioner Gary Bettman to the NHL's Western Conference champions. The Los Angeles Kings' long-suffering fans gathered downtown shortly after dawn, eager to witness a series sweep and a coronation.
And then Captain Coyote and his goalie crashed the party for a win that suggests this series is far from finished.
Shane Doan scored two goals, Mike Smith made 36 saves in his third playoff shutout, and the Phoenix Coyotes emphatically avoided playoff elimination with a 2-0 victory in Game 4 of the conference finals on Sunday.
Ray Whitney and Antoine Vermette had assists for the Coyotes, who avoided the sweep by snapping the eighth-seeded Kings' eight-game winning streak and canceling Los Angeles' plans to celebrate its first berth in the Stanley Cup finals since 1993. With their backs against the glass, the Coyotes soundly outplayed an opponent that had been on an 11-1 run through the postseason.
"We recognize we put ourselves in a tough position, (but) we also know it has been done," said Doan, Phoenix's captain since 2003 and the sole remaining member of the Winnipeg Jets team that moved to the desert in 1996.
"I guess that's what sports are all about, trying to do something that someone hasn't done for a while, try to do things (when) the odds are kind of stacked against you," Doan added. "Nobody wants to be in the position we're in, but everybody wants to prove they can answer that call."
Phoenix still must win three more games to become just the fourth team in NHL history to rally from an 0-3 series deficit, but the Coyotes finally regained the form they showed in knocking off Chicago and Nashville in the first two rounds.
Game 5 is Tuesday night in Phoenix. Los Angeles is 7-0 on the road in the playoffs, but the Coyotes can't wait to see another whiteout in their stands.
"Two ways to look at it: They're either due to lose, or we've got to find a way to stop them," Doan said. "Law of averages says you're going to lose eventually on the road, so it happens. Next game wouldn't be a bad one to lose."
Doan scored on a power play in the first period and on a deflected shot in the second, silencing the crowd at the Kings' first loss since April 18. Smith, who has all three of his shutouts on the road, made several impressive saves while outplaying Jonathan Quick for the first time in the series.
"We had nothing to lose," Smith said. "We had to make sure we played our best game. That would give us a chance to win. We obviously had a huge game from Doaner, and it trickled down through our lineup. He was unbelievable. He was such a great leader tonight. Every guy knew that they were going to do their part to try to force this series to Game 5."
Quick stopped 19 shots with little help from his Los Angeles teammates, who were shut out for the first time in the postseason while hitting a bump in what had been one of the most impressive playoff runs in NHL history.
The Kings have reached the Cup final just once in 44 seasons of existence, but their worst game of the postseason prevented them from claiming just the second conference title in franchise history — and becoming just the second No. 8 seed to win three playoff rounds.
"Phoenix played a really good game and came out hard," Kings defenseman Matt Greene said. "They got a big power-play goal against us there, and they got a big faceoff goal. Smith was awesome tonight. They played well, and we can play better. We need to respond better than that."
Coyotes won't go away
The resilient Coyotes are no strangers to adversity after making the playoffs in three straight seasons without an owner or impressive fan support. Asked by Doan and coach Dave Tippett to show their pride in Game 4, the Coyotes showed they're not done with the longest playoff run in franchise history.
"We're going to go home feeling like we can grab some momentum out of this game," Tippett said. "There's some areas we can certainly embrace that we did better in this game than the other games in this series. You go home and try to push it along again. We're in the same situation."
The scene was set for a Kings crowning at Staples Center, but they'll have to have to fly to Phoenix after practice Monday. Los Angeles probably should work on its power play, now in a 3-for-60 slump after going 0 for 6 in Game 4.
"Do I like going back on the road tomorrow? No, absolutely not," Kings coach Darryl Sutter said. "But that's the way it works. That's why it's four out of seven. Did we think, as not a home-ice team, we weren't ever going to lose a game? No, it's that simple. You're supposed to play 28 games, not 12 or 13, four or five."
With its fans standing and cheering from pregame warmup onward, Los Angeles showed only flashes of its usual aggressive forechecking and speed in Game 4. Phoenix managed just two shots in the first 14 minutes, but Doan still put the Coyotes ahead late in the period, skating out from behind the net and flicking a backhand past Quick.
Doan's first goal in five games snapped Phoenix's 0-for-22 power play drought and ended the Kings' streak of 30 straight penalties killed, dating to Game 5 of the first round against Vancouver on April 22. Los Angeles also fell behind in a game for just the second time since the second-round opener against St. Louis.
Doan scored again midway through the second period with a deflected shot after Vermette won a faceoff. Doan's shot ricocheted off the camera inside the net, and play briefly continued while the Coyotes raised their arms.
The Kings were awful in the second period, with a failing forecheck and poor passing. Smith nearly gifted a goal to the Kings with a turnover behind his net, but the 40-year-old Whitney dived to deflect Dustin Brown's shot on an open net.
"When you have nothing to lose, you just throw it all out there and see what happens," Whitney said. "You could see we were a little less nervous with the puck."
Although a confluence of big sporting events in downtown Los Angeles threatened to affect the day for Kings fans, they weren't deterred by the traffic nightmares threatened by the Tour of California cycling race outside and a Clippers evening playoff game.
Thousands of black-jerseyed faithful formed lines outside pubs and thronged the streets outside Staples. Most of the seats were already filled by the warm-up, which began at almost the exact moment Peter Sagan won the Tour's final stage on the street outside.
The NBA worried a multiple-overtime playoff game might force a delay of the Clippers' Game 4 against the San Antonio Spurs, or even force a postponement to Monday.
The Coyotes avoided all overtimes — and all celebrations.