Darren Eliot
Monday March 15th, 2010

The Phoenix Coyotes' season is as unlikely a tale as one might imagine in pro sports. After a summer of legal scuffling in bankruptcy court, ownership squabbling and league intervention, chaos reigned in the desert. The situation reached its nadir as training camp approached and part-owner, coach and franchise-face Wayne Gretzky left to decide if he was going to walk away.

Assistant coach Ulf Samuelsson kept things together on the ice as the NHL took over operation of the franchise and sought someone to coach the team. Enter Dave Tippett, recently released by the Dallas Stars, his defensive leanings apparently having run their course in the Lone Star State. Interestingly, the Stars won't be making the playoffs and the Coyotes are on their way to the postseason for the first time since 2002.

So it was out with Wayne and in with winning. Bringing Tippett in was precisely the right move. But it wasn't as if he was going to take this challenge on without some assurances. "I knew how I wanted this team to play," he says. "I had the backing of (GM) Don Maloney, so from the very beginning it was easy to say this is how we're going to play. What I found was a group that was really receptive -- they wanted to apply themselves to winning, whatever that meant."

What that has meant is 42 wins -- one shy of the franchise mark set in 1984-85 when the team resided in Winnipeg as the Jets. Entering the week, the Coyotes were riding a five-game winning streak -- winger Lee Stempniak, acquired from Toronto at the trade deadline, earned NHL Second Star of the Week honors after scoring five goals in three of them -- and they had won 13 of their last 17 matches.

The Coyotes have surprised many people, mostly because the focus was off-ice and not on it -- for everyone but the players and coaches. As Tippett put it, "We've stayed away from the off-ice stuff and concentrated on the hockey. We've developed a pack mentality on the ice and we play with a lot of structure. We've emphasized commitment away from the puck and the guys have done a really good job in that regard. We might not score that much, but we try to find just enough each night to win."

The Coyotes have certainly done that, with a 26-5-5 record in one-goal games. Goaltender Ilya Bryzgalov leads the NHL with eight shutouts. Yes, he is supported by that "pack of desert dogs" mentality, but he has provided confident netminding throughout. He makes saves and his teammates work like heck to win stick battles to clear rebounds. The offense forces a couple of goals home and the goaltending makes them stand up.

Tippett's assessment after last weekend's textbook shutout of the Hurricanes in Raleigh perfectly summed up the coach's mindset and the team's identity: "Bryz was really good in cleaning up the few chances they did get."

The attention shifts back to the off-ice side of the story this week, with Commissioner Gary Bettman, Ice Edge Holdings and the city of Glendale, Arizona, getting together to try to iron out a new lease agreement. Apparently, the IEH bid is all contingent on getting a lease agreement that makes sense, given a potential change in ownership. What may have made sense when this deal in the desert was first struck now seems unpalatable for any interested suitor. Throw in the NHL's breach of contract lawsuit against former owner Jerry Moyes, who is filing a counterclaim, and there remains much to talk about regarding the Coyotes off the ice -- all of which was anticipated.

No one, though, saw the on-ice story coming. Tippett came to town, bringing mentor Dave King as his assistant because "he is one of the most experienced and brilliant hockey minds in the world." Together they've authored an old fashioned western yarn about toughness against all odds. Right now, their timing is impeccable, too. While the suits invade Arizona, the Coyotes continue on the road this week with games in Florida against the Lightning and Panthers.

All the better to focus on hockey, which this team has done so admirably this season.

SI Apps
We've Got Apps Too
Get expert analysis, unrivaled access, and the award-winning storytelling only SI can provide - from Peter King, Tom Verducci, Lee Jenkins, Seth Davis, and more - delivered straight to you, along with up-to-the-minute news and live scores.