Coyotes finally showing signs of life

BY BRETT MURDOCK, contributor

After enduring two consecutive first-round playoff losses to the Detroit Red Wings, it sure looked like the Phoenix Coyotes were in for a major letdown this year.

They lost their franchise goaltender, Ilya Bryzgalov, who signed an outrageous contract with the Philadelphia Flyers. They are still owned by the NHL and are always under the relocation cloud. And, they still did not have a marquee player to really put butts in the seats at Arena.

Left winger Ray Whitney, a 20-year NHL veteran, leads the Phoenix Coyotes with 33 assists and is one of the reasons the team is relevant again. Photo by: Bridget Samuels / Flickr

They attempted to more or less replace some lost pieces through the market, acquiring goaltender Mike Smith and fourth-line grinder Raffi Torres on the first day of free agency. Their ownership troubles still loomed but there are still interested parties, reportedly. And they acquired former Coyote and first-line center Daymond Langkow in a trade.

The 2011-12 season started off alright as the boys surprised everyone by jumping out of the gate quite nicely, but quickly simmered into something more resembling a team going through the motions than a franchise looking to prove that they weren’t just lucky or a fluke the past two years. Entering the recently completed All-Star break, they were mired in a pack of six teams vying for a playoff spot and did not look like they had the drive, or talent, to make it to the finish line.

But, in the five games since the break, they have won four of them, including their past three, two of those being over Western Conference favorites, the San Jose Sharks and the Red Wings. The mini-push has put them into a tie for the West’s final playoff spot at the moment and only six points behind the Sharks for the Pacific Division lead.

The recent winning attitude is probably the product of a team realizing that they need to make noise now and that every game from here on out is a playoff game. They have received solid goaltending from Smith this year and more importantly, he has been standing on his head lately. This team will only go as far as their net minder takes them, as evidenced the past two seasons.

The Coyotes do not have that much talent, minus defensemen Keith Yandle and Oliver Ekman-Larsson and rely more on grit and determination. Guys like Kyle Chipchura, Boyd Gordon and Torres epitomize those rough-and-tumble players the Desert Dogs rely on while offensive weapons Ray Whitney, Radim Vrbata and Yandle provide the punch when needed to reward the grinders for their work.

But, when all the cogs and pieces on this team fit together, it is fun to watch. Their style of play won’t keep you on the edge of your seat, but the only stat that matters is the number that is shown in the win column. And recently, it has been an enjoyable ride.

Can they still make a run to the playoffs? Absolutely they can, with most of the games on their schedule being against Western Conference foes and the majority being on home ice. They probably still need to make a trade to bolster their scoring punch and have the pieces to do it but as of now, life is good in the desert. Lets just hope the Dogs don’t go out with a whimper. 

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