What immediately comes to mind when you think of the Phoenix Coyotes? Perhaps it's "non-viable hockey market" or "overachievers" or "Dave Tippett could coach even a team of ferrets to victory." The Coyotes have long been looked at as underdogs. But this season, in the shadow of the San Jose Sharks and Anaheim Ducks, the Yotes have risen to contender status.
The Tampa Bay Lightning were 7-0 this year against the Western Conference heading into Saturday night's tilt vs. the Coyotes, but they exited the Jobing.com Arena 7-1. Phoenix's 6-3 victory wasn't immaculate, but like they do many nights, the Yotes came away with a win.
A look at the simple stats give you a good idea of who these Coyotes are: they have 31 points, trailing only the Sharks and Ducks for the league lead (yes, strangely they sit third in their division and the league); they haven't lost a game at home in regulation; they're eighth in faceoff percentage, sixth in power play and fourth in goals per game.
About that last one, goals per game. Surprising, isn't it? This franchise doesn't have a reputation for lighting the lamp. Their attack starts on the back end with Oliver Ekman-Larsson and Keith Yandle, who are tied for third in defensemen scoring with 16 points apiece. They each anchor a pairing, meaning one of them is on the ice for most of the game. Yandle is more established, but Ekman-Larsson is the better player. He'll at least be nominated for the Norris Trophy this year, and you can take that to your bookie. With these two patrolling the blueline, forwards are getting a lot more breakout passes on the tape.
But it's not as though Phoenix's forwards haven't been carrying their weight. With his four-point night against Tampa, Martin Hanzal is a point per game player. He's been dangerous offensively all year, showing he can be more than a third-line center. He's more than half way to matching his career-best season of 34 points and it's only November. He's also getting some bounces this year. Check out his lone goal vs. the Lightning.
It has become a cliché to call Radim Vrbata underrated, but he still is, somehow. After 62 points in 2011-12 and scoring around that pace last year, he's once again flirting with 30 goals and 60 points. He was the game's first star on Saturday, notching three helpers.
Mike Ribeiro was the team's major free agent signing and he's delivered with points and creativity -- exactly what he's provided at every stop in his career.
Captain Shane Doan went without a point in his first five games of the season, but recently he's ignited with nine goals in 11 games. He's been a model captain for a decade.
As always, it's a team effort in Phoenix. Dave Tippett may be the most respected coach in the NHL for his ability to generate wins with whatever roster he's given. Consider 2009-10, when the Coyotes won 50 games with a roster most coaches would have trouble coaching to a playoff berth. Those Coyotes were true underdogs, these Coyotes are true contenders. It's no longer a surprise when they win. Neither should it be a surprise if they make another deep playoff run.