Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Good times in the desert, for now


The general consensus seems to be it requires 10 games of a hockey season for a general manager, coach or players to get a feel for their team and find out just how good they are. So maybe I'll re-visit this in another five games, but how impressive have the 3-2-0 Coyotes been so far?

By "impressive" I do not mean "entertaining." With apologies to my Arizona friends, the Coyotes have been anything but fun to watch. But they've also won three of their first five games, and here's the impressive part: Two of those wins were shutouts on the road against the defending champion Penguins and the President's Trophy-winning Sharks.

Let me repeat that: Phoenix earned shutouts at Pittsburgh and at San Jose. That's quite a feat.

Being a Penguins fan, I'm going to point out Pittsburgh seemed to show no interest and very little desire against Phoenix. But the Coyotes did plenty to not allow the Penguins any chances to score, they played a disciplined style of hockey and frustrated the Penguins. The Coyotes played the perfect road game.

They did the same in San Jose. In the two games, Phoenix allowed a total of 50 shots, 24 to the Penguins and 26 to the Sharks, who last year averaged 33 shots per game and have two of the hottest players in the league in Joe Thornton and Dany Heatley.

Phoenix is the early feel-good story of the NHL, by far. All the ownership issues, the bankruptcy, the dreadful 2008-09 season, and the Wayne Gretzky snafu don't seem to have affected the team, at least not negatively. It all may have brought the players closer together. How easy would it have been for the Coyotes to show next to no interest in each game, or be beaten down by what's been going on outside the arena?

Dave Tippett was hired not long before the season began and he deserves a lot of the credit. He hasn't let the players fall into a "Why bother?" type of attitude. In very little time, he taught the team a system and structure that gives the Coyotes a chance to win each night. Phoenix is playing a tight, defensive style, not unlike the old Jacques Lemaire-Wild teams. Goaltender Ilya Bryzgalov is receiving much more support and he's also playing better than last season.

To be unkind, the Coyotes set out to bore the other team. But it's working. Through five games, Phoenix has allowed just seven goals. It's scored only 11 times, so if the Coyotes don't win a game 1-0 or 2-1, they might not win. But so far, they're keeping the opponents' scoring down.

Radim Vrbata, in his return to the desert, is the only Coyote with more than two points. He has team-highs with three goals and four points. Captain Shane Doan has only two assists but his offense is bound to show up sooner rather than later. There may be concern over the point-producing abilities of youngsters Mikkel Boedker, Peter Mueller and Scottie Upshall, among others, but I'm guessing the focus from the coaching staff - which includes former rugged, tough-guy defenseman Ulf Samuelsson, who also deserves a lot of credit - is on limiting the opposition's scoring and not worrying so much about Phoenix's offense.

Six teams have a worse power play percentage than Phoenix (15.4% through Monday) and certainly that will have to improve, given how little the team scores. The penalty killing is middle-of-the-pack (14th, 81%) in the early going.

The one blemish so far, other than the power play, has been being blanked in their home opener, after team officials did so much to get a sell-out.

It's not too likely the Coyotes will keep up this kind of play all season. They may still win only 30 to 35 games. But they're not going to be the walk-over so many people - including me - expected. They'll make teams work and work and work some more for every inch and every goal.

Now that I've written all this, Phoenix will probably give up 20 goals in losing the next five games, and all I've said will be for naught. I really do seem to have that kind of jinxing power. (The first game after I pointed out Milan Michalek and Jonathan Cheechoo had no goals and one point so far, Michalek scored on an assist from Cheechoo. Just one example. At the same time, Heatley, who I'd praised, was shut out by these Coyotes.)

Regardless, it's been good to see Phoenix is enjoying at least some success so far with all the troubles off-ice - and on - the franchise has gone through in recent years.

If only some of it hadn't come at my team's expense.

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