Even if they don’t win another game this year, the Phoenix Coyotes will have exceeded expectations in 2007-08 and laid the groundwork for future success.
OK, OK, chances are, coach Wayne Gretzky’s team wouldn’t be too happy if it went 0-for-the-final-40-games of the season. And of course, it won’t. In fact, the way Phoenix rose up in the first half of ’07-08, the team can focus on making it to the post-season in the spring – rather than the entry draft in June – as the trade deadline approaches.
While the Coyotes are sitting on the outside of the playoffs in the tight Western Conference, they’re one of just 14 NHL teams that are truly over .500 (at 21-18-1, they have more wins than losses and overtime/shootout losses combined). That’s quite a contrast to the pre-season prognostications, when it was predicted Phoenix would finish last in the league and struggle to win 20 games.
Goaltender Ilya Bryzgalov, who has gone 11-8-1 since being claimed off waivers from divisional rival Anaheim in mid-November, is one of the big reasons for Phoenix’s momentum. However, Bryzgalov also is the beneficiary of good defensive play in front of him. The Coyotes are still struggling to score this season, ranking 25th in goals per game. But only six or seven NHL teams can claim a better goals-against average and it’s that commitment to two-way play that has made Phoenix relevant in the West.
The Coyotes haven’t seen the NHL post-season since 2002 and have advanced to the second round only twice in franchise history. The last time? 1987. (The team’s two highly regarded rookie forwards, Peter Mueller and Martin Hanzal, were unborn and two months old, respectively, at the time.)
In the past month, the Pittsburgh Penguins have waived veteran winger Mark Recchi and seen No. 1 goalie Marc-Andre Fleury (high ankle sprain) and crusty power forward Gary Roberts (broken left leg) go down to long-term injuries.
So how have the Pens responded?
By going 12-4-0 to climb into contention for the Atlantic Division title and the No. 2 seed in the Eastern Conference.
You can thank Ty Conklin, who has gone 7-0-0 since being recalled from the American League when Fleury got hurt – and, yes, Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin for driving a thriving offense.
BLUE AND YELLOW STREAK
If the Buffalo Sabres are anything this season, they’re streaky.
They’ve had four losing skids of at least three games, including a six-game slide heading into Tuesday’s contest at New Jersey. And they’ve won three, five and six games in a row at different stretches this year.
All that inconsistent play has meant the team that cruised into the playoffs last year is having a hard time this time around. Just when the Sabres get their head above water after a slow start, another losing streak hits and they’re back below the playoff bubble again.
The Detroit Red Wings: Nobody has more wins or fewer losses. Nobody scores more or gives up less.
They’re loaded with experience, yet dripping with talented youth. They have speed and grit and physical forwards.
They’re 17-2-1 in their past 20 games.
If Detroit needs anything, they could stand to get tougher on the back end. It won’t be Jiri Fischer, but look for the Wings to add a big, crease-clearing D-man in Fischer’s mold.
Finally, it looks like the demise of the Dallas Stars was grossly exaggerated.
Only Detroit (32) and Ottawa (27) have more wins than Dallas (24) and the supposedly scoring-challenged Stars were tied for the second-most goals in the West.
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