Monday, April 5, 2010

Against All Odds: The Phoenix Coyotes

We all love the Cinderella role that teams take on when entering their season’s playoff run. These underdogs take the form of a heart-driven team that overcame the odds and surpassed expectations in a pursuit to defy what the majority anticipated. We’re currently a witness to Butler’s Cinderella run towards a NCAA men’s basketball national championship and we saw what the Arizona Cardinals accomplished in the 2009 NFL playoffs but another diamond has emerged in Glendale Arizona: The Phoenix Coyotes.

Written off for dead before the season was even underway, the Phoenix Coyotes filed for bankruptcy before the conclusion of the 2008-2009 season. Their then coach, Wayne Gretzky, resigned due to the conflicts faced as an owner of the team, talks of a move to Canada filled the media circuits and the team was sold to the NHL before training camp started. On September 24th 2009, Dave Tippett, took over as head coach for the team fresh off an ousting from Dallas after the Stars miss the playoffs for the first time since he took over as head coach in 2002. Tippett made controversial moves sending prospects Viktor Tikhonov, Mikkel Boedker, and Kyle Turris down to San Antonio of the AHL. These prospects were slated to be the future of the team and thought of by many, including General Manager Don Maloney, as an immediate need for this team to compete this season. Tippett’s thought process was to let these players develop and gain confidence at the AHL level instead of relying on them for too much too early in their NHL careers.

Through the first 25 games of the season, the Coyotes went 13-11-1 maybe doing slightly better than what people expected. The next 25 games, however, saw the ‘Yotes achieve a 15-6-4 record accumulating 34 points of a possible 50 during the span. Phoenix, all of a sudden, had confidence to build on. A 9-game win streak after the Olympic break and some brilliant Trade Deadline acquisitions in Lee Stempniak, Wojtek Wolski, and Derek Morris had the Coyotes cruising towards the top of the divisions and clinching a playoff spot on March 27th. Now, with 3 games remaining in the regular season and a chance, though remote, for the team to take over the top spot in the conference, the Coyotes look to the post season and I started to evaluate whether or not they actually have what it takes to win the Stanley Cup.

What needs to happen for this team to win?

First and foremost their powerplay needs to improve. They currently rank 28th in the league at 15.1% and we all know how hard goals are to come by during the post-season so special teams is a very important aspect to a team’s success.

Veterans need to play their role whether it being the best player on the ice or most inspirational in the room. Captain Shane Doan’s goal-drought is now at 25-games and although it hasn’t affected much of the team’s overall success, once the post-season begins and pressure sets in, he’s going to have to lead by example and start putting goals up on the board. Defensemen Adrian Aucoin, Ed Jovanovski, and Mathieu Schneider will be relied on to anchor the blue-line with veteran presence, hard hitting, and shot blocking.

Coyotes’ Strengths

It all starts and ends with goaltending. Ilya Bryzgalov has been, in my opinion, fantastic. Currently tied for 1st in the league with 8 shutouts, the 6’3 Russian goaltender has playoff experience including a Game 7 win and back to back shutouts in 2003 as well as success in the ’07 playoffs with Anaheim. In this being his 8th NHL season, he is having a career year in games played, goals against average, shutouts, and saves all legitimatizing his candidacy for a Vezina Trophy. If I’m a player in the Phoenix Coyotes’ dressing room, I’m confident in my starting goaltender and a believer that he gives us a chance to win every night he’s between the pipes.

The NHL trade deadline proved to be a great success with the acquisitions of Lee Stempniak and Wojtek Wolski. I’m not sure what’s in the water in Phoenix, or if the desert has these kids thirsty, but Stempniak has lit the lamp 13 times in the 15 games he’s been with the ‘Yotes and Wolski has 14 points in 15 games with his new squad. Now imagine if Doan can get his game back on track and these two players continue their offensive assaults – I wouldn’t be too happy facing them in the first round.

Possible 1st Round Opponents

With the difficult regular season that remains (home against Nashville, at LA, and at San Jose) the Coyotes will most likely finish 4th in the Western Conference and will take on the 5th seeded team. Seeding is still up for grabs but it’s possible they’ll draw Nashville, Los Angeles, or Detroit in the first round. I can tell you that all the #1-4 teams do NOT want to draw Detroit in first round. Well-coached and well-versed with playoff experience, they’ll no doubt be a tough first round opponent for whoever faces them. Taking on LA in round one would be an interesting and exciting matchup with both teams having young rosters sprinkled with some veteran talent. The Coyotes are 2-2-1 thus far in the season series with one final game to be played in LA on Thursday night. If the Coyotes take on Nashville in round one, we could be treated to a defensive-minded series with a solid goaltending duel between Pekka Rinne and Ilya Bryzgalov.

It’s hard to say if the Coyotes have what it takes to make it deep into the post-season, if they don’t draw Detroit in the 1st round, I would expect to see them in round 2. Either way, there’s one thing these players can keep in their minds: they have nothing to lose. No one expected them to succeed in the regular season and look what they’ve accomplished. It’s clear that the players wanted the franchise to stay in Phoenix and you can be sure that this Cinderella story will end with a standing ovation whether its from a series loss, or hoisting the Stanley Cup.

Don't worry, Calgary is still not making the playoffs...the list is coming soon.

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