Phoenix Coyotes coach Wayne Gretzky. (AP Photo/Karl B. DeBlaker)
Just two weeks ago it was a season headed nowhere for the Coyotes, seven games under .500, hammered by injuries and low on hope. Then came six straight victories, five of them on the road, and suddenly Wayne Gretzky's team is only five points out of a playoff spot in the Western Conference with half a season to go.
"It's been quite the turnaround," Gretzky said Monday with a hint of a chuckle.
The win streak started with a pair of wins over mighty San Jose, including an 8-0 hammering of the Sharks at home Dec. 30, before a five-game road trip landed wins in Washington, Carolina, Atlanta and finally Chicago on Sunday. They wrap it up Tuesday night at Dallas.
"What we've done is nearly dug ourselves from an enormous hole," said Coyotes GM Mike Barnett. "But we're nowhere near satisfied. In fact it won't mean much if we don't keep going. But at least now we feel that it's realistic to go to the rink every night feeling good about yourself and expecting to be hard to play against."
It has to feel good for everyone in the Coyotes organization. Gretzky, in particular, took some cheap shots from different corners when things didn't look so good.
"Nobody likes being the laughingstock of the league which we kind of felt we were," Coyotes captain Shane Doan said from Dallas. "Everyone was kind of laughing and making fun of us. A lot of people were saying, 'I told you so.'
"We're still not even close to where we want to be but it feels good to have a little run and get things going in the right direction."
The 5-4 overtime win over the Thrashers was a character builder as the Coyotes trailed 4-1 early in the third period Friday night before roaring back with three goals to tie it. Yanic Perreault scored the winner in OT.
The confidence level on the Coyotes has never been higher.
"No question," Gretzky told The Canadian Press in a phone interview. "When we were down 4-1 in Atlanta, there was a good feeling on the bench . . . the feeling was that we could come back."
Doan noted the Coyotes had every excuse to fold up tent in that game but didn't.
"We had beaten San Jose twice, won in Washington, won in Carolina, so you're down 4-1 to a great team like Atlanta and there's an opportunity there for you to think, 'Well, we had a pretty good run.' But not a single person on the bench had that feeling," he said.
Gretzky said there have been a number of factors for the turnaround, not the least of which the team is finally getting healthy after being hammered by injuries to key players all season long.
He credited his veteran players as well, the likes of Doan and Owen Nolan up front and Ed Jovanovski and Derek Morris on the back end.
"Their level of play went to another level and obviously that really helps," Gretzky said.
Doan has 10 points (5-5) during the six-game win streak and has regained the form that seemed to elude him early in the season.
"Shane Doan, in the last 10 games, is probably playing the best hockey that I've seen him play," said Gretzky. "He's just really gone to another level so we're happy for him."
Also a big factor, Gretzky said, was the goaltending of veteran Curtis Joseph and newcomer Mikael Tellqvist. The former Toronto Maple Leafs' arrival in November has helped Joseph because Tellqvist has been relied on to start his share of games.
"When Curtis goes into the net now he's physically and mentally a lot stronger because of the rest he's getting in between games," said Gretzky. "This is as good as he's played in the time he's been here. I know he had good stretches last year but he's been really, really solid. Tellqvist is probably been better than anybody had anticipated.
"So we have a nice combination of goaltenders and our goaltending has been a key in our push."
The win streak has clouded things a bit for Barnett, who two weeks ago must have thought for sure he'd be a big seller come the Feb. 27 trade deadline.
"We still have the big picture and a solid plan of what we're trying to do moving forward," said Barnett. "We've got some real good young players added to the lineup this year. We feel like we're going in the right direction and we're not going to give up the future for the present.
"But the present is certainly proving to be a lot more enjoyable for everybody in our organization and most importantly our fans."
Notes: There was hope that defenceman Nick Boynton might play Tuesday after being out six weeks with a broken foot but Barnett said they'll push him back to either Thursday's game against Detroit or Saturday's game against San Jose . . . Doan is slated for unrestricted free agency July 1 but hopes to re-sign before then: "Everybody wants some stability. But right now my No. 1 focus is trying to get into a playoff spot. The contract stuff is not really that big of an issue."