When goaltender Ilya Bryzgalov left the Phoenix Coyotes last summer, most hockey experts thought the team's success left with him. Instead, general manager Don Maloney and coach Dave Tippett proved this season that the team's accomplishments were built on solid team play rather than individual achievement.
Thanks to the Dallas' Stars 2-0 loss to the Nashville Predators on Thursday, the Coyotes clinched a playoff spot for the third straight season and remain in the mix for the Pacific Division title.
Here are six reasons they got to this point:
1. The resurrection of Mike Smith: The goaltender had gone from starter to minor leaguer with the Lightning, and when he signed with the Coyotes as a free agent over the summer, few saw him as a legitimate replacement for Bryzgalov, who had backstopped the Coyotes to back-to-back playoff appearances. All Smith has done is post the best season of his NHL career. His 36 wins are a career best; his eight shutouts are nearly as many as he had in his first five seasons; and he goes into Saturday's finale having stopped 136 straight shots in three consecutive shutouts.
2. The Wizard of Offense: How many 39-year-olds lead their team in scoring this season? Just one -- the Coyotes' Ray Whitney. Combining smarts and skill, Whitney continues to get better with age. His 77 points are 15th in the League, and his career-best plus-25 rating not only leads the team, but is the best among the top-30 scorers in the NHL. "He's taken all his assets and maximized them and he's turned into a great player, a very entertaining player," coach Dave Tippett told the Arizona Republic. "He's a great teammate, enjoys the game. His fitness levels are outstanding. He's a consummate pro and a very highly skilled one."
3. Tippett's touch: The Coyotes have just three 20-goal scorers and only two players with at least 50 points. Their leading scorer turns 40 in a month and their starting goalie spent a large chunk of last season in the AHL. But somehow, someway, Tippett gets his players to buy in and succeed. The Coyotes went more than three straight games without a win just twice all season.
4. Vrbata's career season: Radim Vrbata has shown in the past the ability to put the puck in the net -- he's scored at least 20 twice in 10 seasons, plus another season with 19. This season, however, he's raised his game. Playing most of the season on a line with Whitney, Vrbata has scored 33 goals. And he hasn't just scored them in blowouts -- his 11 game-winning goals are second in the League and the most by a Phoenix player since Jeremy Roenick had 12 in 1999-2000.
5. The captain's steady lead: Shane Doan had 20 goals for the 11th time in 12 seasons, but his place on the team goes far beyond anything he does on the ice. Doan is a firm, strong presence on and off the ice, keeps every player on the roster in step with the game plan, and makes sure none of the outside noise that always seems to surround the franchise affects the on-ice performance.
6. Maloney the master builder: No one seems to be able to do more with less than Coyotes GM Don Maloney. He's excelled even with the team's unorthodox ownership situation, finding just the right players to fill any hole on the roster, whether it's through free agency or at the trade deadline. His signing of Smith in July to replace Bryzgalov now looks like a master stroke.
Contact Adam Kimelman at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter: @NHLAdamK