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He was there, in the stands, an unexpected 11th-hour presence at what turned out to be the Phoenix Coyotes' final game of the season.

Matt Hulsizer, prospective owner of the Coyotes, wasn't originally scheduled to attend Wednesday night's win-or-go-home playoff game against the Detroit Red Wings, but he showed up anyway, presumably to demonstrate that all is not lost in the NHL's ongoing saga to keep the team afloat in the Arizona desert, against growing odds and opposition.

Hulsizer is a self-confessed hockey fan and was appropriately decked out in a white Coyotes' jersey and a ball cap, part of the playoff 'White Out' that has characterized the franchise as far back as its Winnipeg Jets' days. When his image was plastered on the Jumbotron with the greeting 'welcome,' Hulsizer gave a tentative monarchical sort of wave, designed to inspire confidence in the future, one would guess.

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Sadly, the present doesn't look nearly as bright. For the second year in a row, the Coyotes fell in the opening round to the Red Wings, following a hard-to-swallow 6-3 defeat last night. Last year, the Coyotes pushed the perennial NHL power house from Hockeytown to a seventh game, but this year, they were out in four, the first team to exit the playoffs, the only team to get swept.

Coyotes captain Shane Doan was visibly distraught by the result and didn't want to talk about the possibility of moving back to Winnipeg, where he started his NHL career.

"It's been an interesting two years, that's for sure," said Doan. "You know what? It is what it is. It's what we've had to deal with. It's obviously not an ideal situation - of how you want to go into the playoffs, the way it comes up again, right as the playoffs were starting. You wish that it hadn't but that's the way it is."

And if this was the last game in Phoenix?

"I don't even want to go there," answered Doan. "I think everybody knows my feeling - that this has become my home. If it is (the last game), you deal with it."

To a man, the Coyotes were upset that reports of their imminent departure surfaced on the day the Red Wings' series opened.

"For a guy like me, who's been around for a while, it's one thing to park things," said defenceman Adrian Aucoin, "but for some of the younger guys, it obviously wasn't that easy.

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"Having the fans support us the way they did this year and especially the last couple of games - and staying in the building when we were down by three games - was pretty unbelievable. Hopefully, we can reward them by keeping the team here."

It was Danny Cleary's seeing-eye shot from the left corner at the 13:41 mark of the third which deflected in off Coyotes' goaltender Ilya Bryzgalov that ultimately decided the game in Detroit's favour. The goal was an outright fluke. Cleary did what every player is told to do when no viable scoring options present themselves - direct the puck towards the net. Cleary was standing a foot below the goal line, hoping to generate a rebound, when Bryzgalov came off the post and let the puck squirt behind him for the game-winning goal. Later, Todd Bertuzzi scored the insurance goal to put the matter out, stuffing the puck past Bryzgalov after winning a battle with Eric Belanger.

"Goalies have two ways to be," said Bryzgalov, afterward. "To be a hero or to be a goat. I am goat."

On many levels, it was two separate games - a wild and crazy match that produced six goals in the first 24:49 of play, with goals pin-balling in here, there and everywhere. From there, it settled down into more traditional grind-it-out playoff hockey for the better part of 30 minutes, before Cleary broke the draw and gave the Red Wings a week off before the next round begins.

The Coyotes, meanwhile, were expected to clean out their lockers Friday and await word from the NHL about where to reassemble in the fall - in Winnipeg, if the franchise moves there, or back at the arena, under new ownership.

For the Coyotes, the defeat to the Red Wings marked their 13th consecutive series loss, the longest active streak by far. (The New York Islanders are next at six, followed by the Calgary Flames and Nashville Predators at five apiece). The last victory came in 1987 during the franchise's Winnipeg Jets' incarnation and the losers that time around were the Flames. Maybe the two teams can renew that once great Western Canadian rivalry next year.

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"I've never been swept four straight - ever," said Doan. "That's embarrassing. It's frustrating, when you think you're better, but you didn't show it."

Patrick Eaves, with two including an empty netter, Tomas Holmstrom and Niklas Kronwall scored the other Detroit goals.

Taylor Pyatt, Shane Doan and Martin Hanzal scored for the Coyotes. Hanzal's goal came on a second-period power-play and briefly gave Phoenix a 3-2 lead. It was their sixth power-play goal on the previous 10 chances, a remarkably efficient run for a team not normally known for its offensive skill or creativity.

But Kronwall got that one back almost right away, on a brilliant wrist shot to the top corner past Bryzgalov's outstretched glove and it stayed that way until Cleary connected for the third-period go-ahead goal.

"I thought we were going to do a lot better," said Aucoin, "even down 3-0. There's no way any of us thought that we were going to get this outcome tonight."

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About the Author

Eric was the winner of the Hockey Hall Of Fame's Elmer Ferguson award for "distinguished contributions to hockey writing" in 2001. A graduate of the University of Western Ontario's grad school of journalism, he began covering hockey in 1978 and after spending 20 years covering the NHL and the Calgary Flames, joined The Globe in 2000. More

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