Scottie Upshall and his Coyotes teammates have had more smiles than frowns this campaign. (Photo by Norm Hall/NHLI via Getty Images)
Reports of the Coyotes demise have been greatly exaggerated.
Off the ice, a new owner will soon be in place, one who is not seeking an out-clause in a handcuffing lease that has 26 years remaining on it. Stability can finally begin to set in and relationship reparations with the community can commence.
On the ice, the Coyotes have been one of the stories of the year, but any accomplishments have been overshadowed by the latest front office rumor or the superior play of divisional rivals Los Angeles and San Jose.
Playing in the league’s toughest division, the Coyotes are quietly hanging in there; sitting with 40 points, good enough for sixth in the conference, third in the division. Phoenix has run up against their divisional foes once each since Nov. 29, winning three of the four games outright and garnering a shootout loss again the Kings. Combine that with recent wins against Calgary, Ottawa and surging Minnesota and it quickly becomes apparent this team is being propped up by much more than just a fast start.
With a 9-4 record through October, Phoenix lost eight of its first 12 games in November to bring expectations back to reality and give fans another reason to start loosening their grip on hope for a Cinderella season. But with a hot goalie and a stingy team defense, those lulls usually don’t take long to snap out of.
The best acquisition the team made in the off-season was their veteran coaching team led by a couple men who know what it takes to put W’s up in the standings. Formerly of Dallas, Dave Tippett was brought in to replace The Great One and Dave King was reeled in from Russia to add his knowledge and expertise to a team with enough talent, but plenty of distractions.
They have taken this team from 23rd in shot-against per game (31.6) last year down to fifth (27.5) this year. They’ve also taken last year’s 29th-ranked penalty kill (76 percent) and improved it 7.8 percentage points, good enough for eighth in the league. (And keep in mind, the other four teams in their division are known for their offense and all rank in the top half of the league on the power play.)
Scoring is still a major concern and will be the source of cold streaks, but for beaten-down squads looking for quick results, getting back to the basics and playing sound hockey in your own end can make all the difference. The coaches have recognized that and the players are buying in.
Of course, having a Vezina-caliber goalie doesn’t hurt and Ilya Bryzgalov is bouncing back from a sub-par campaign with an effort that currently has him in the running to be the league’s best goalie (and Team Russia’s starter at the upcoming Olympics). That component can surge a team to enough wins to surprise a whole lot of people.
Can the Coyotes make the playoffs? It’s certainly no longer a silly question and they have the right basic parts in place to scratch their way back in. The coaches have the experience and wherewithal to not demand too much from their charges and play a game custom-fitted for their lineup, while the defense has been shot-block happy and the goalie other-worldly.
And with new owners soon to bring stability and respect back to this starving franchise, giving GM Don Maloney the go-ahead to add a secondary scoring presence isn’t out of the question anymore, either.
After all, I’m sure the new bosses realize how far a playoff berth would go towards resurrecting respectability among the fan base. What better way to reach out than to make a positive trade splash and shout it across the valley?
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