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Gretzky's Coyotes so far defying last-place predictions

Phoenix Coyotes' head coach and managing partner Wayne Gretzky, top center,  yells in a play right before the end of regulation play, which went to a shootout, in their NHL hockey game Sunday, Sept. 16, 2007, in Anaheim, Calif. THE ASSOCIATED PRESS/Henry DiRocco

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Phoenix Coyotes' head coach and managing partner Wayne Gretzky, top center, yells in a play right before the end of regulation play, which went to a shootout, in their NHL hockey game Sunday, Sept. 16, 2007, in Anaheim, Calif. THE ASSOCIATED PRESS/Henry DiRocco

When the Phoenix Coyotes began the season 2-5-0 they were well on their way to fulfilling the last-place finish the vast majority of pundits predicted for them.

Or so it seemed. Since then Wayne Gretzky's club has won five of its last seven games to even its record at 7-7-0.

"Other than one or two games we've had a chance to win every game this year," captain Shane Doan told The Canadian Press on Friday. "I don't think it's a fluke.

"And I think we're definitely proving people wrong and showing we won't be the doormat everyone thought."

Still, this is a very young team in rebuilding mode.

"I'd be lying if I said myself or anybody thought that we were going to be in the position we were in right now," said defenceman Derek Morris. "But we didn't think we were going to have bad team, either. We thought we had a team that was going to bring a very exciting game to the ice."

Gretzky and new GM Don Maloney went into this season with eyes wide open. They were going young with a long-term view to success. This season was going to have its lumps and bumps but it would be worth it down the road.

Still being in the mix six weeks into the season is a bonus.

"We're obviously playing better than people anticipated we would," said star defenceman Ed Jovanovski. "But I think in our dressing room we know if we play the right way it gives us an opportunity every night. Our goalies are also giving us a chance every night, which is huge."

Mikael Tellqvist and Alex Auld have shared the load in net while Doan and Reinprecht have led the way offensively. Jovanovski and Morris are leading the way on defence, rugged winger Daniel Carcillo has shown he can drop the gloves and score goals while rookie forwards Peter Mueller and Martin Hanzal are showing glimpses of why they're going to be special players in this league.

"People in Phoenix have actually come up to us and said, 'Wow, your team is a lot more exciting than it was last year,"' said Morris.

Morris is only 29 years old but he's definitely a veteran on a club that has only three players 30 and older - Doan, Jovanovski and centre Steven Reinprecht.

"We've got a great group of young kids here that bring a lot of energy every night," said Morris.

And then there's Gretzky, in his third season behind the bench.

"I like the way Wayne has approached it this year," said Morris. "He's come in and he's demanding a lot out of these young guys early. Those young guys look up to Wayne. He's done a really good job of bringing these young guys along."

With veteran assistant coach Barry Smith gone to Russia last summer and Rick Tocchet not allowed back until February from his leave of absence, Gretzky has had to take on more. And Morris said the players have responded.

"With our coaching situation having changed, I think he's taken on a bigger role and he's demanding a lot more out of us," said Morris. "And it's good to see him take that step and really say listen, 'This is my team, and we're going to play the way I want us to play. And if you don't like it, you're not going to play.'

"I think everybody on our team has bought into his system. He's not a screamer or a yeller, but he's an honest guy and he demands a lot out of us."

Win or lose, the youthful exuberance makes the Coyotes a fun team to watch. They'll make mistakes which will end up in the back of their net. But they'll also show some of their upside.

The fans haven't quite bought in yet. The Coyotes are 26th in the league with an average attendance of 13,779 through eight home dates.

"I think the fans will come once they realize we have an exciting team, whether it's this year or the end of next year or next year, depending on how we do," said Morris. "They just want a winner. It's a long drive out here to go to our rink (in suburban Glendale).

"It's got to be something exciting. I think we're going that way."

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