But thanks to General Manager Don Maloney, new Head Coach Dave Tippett and veteran leaders such as Shane Doan
, Ed Jovanovski and Zbynek Michalek, the team’s off-the-ice issues were left exactly there, and the Coyotes were able to thrive on the ice and set numerous franchise records including marks for victories (50), points (107) and home victories (29) in one season.
|Don Maloney. |
It all started soon after the 2008-09 season ended when Maloney and his staff decided to switch gears from building a playoff team with young, potential-laden players to building a playoff team with seasoned yet affordable players. To that end, the Coyotes acquired defenseman Jim Vandermeer in a trade with Calgary and then signed defenseman Adrian Aucoin
, center Vernon Fiddler, and goalie Jason LaBarbera
during the free agency signing period. Veteran forward Radim Vrbata
returned to the team via trade later in July, and free agents Taylor Pyatt
and Robert Lang joined the mix in September.
With the new players in place, the Coyotes welcomed Tippett behind the bench about a week before the regular season started. Known and respected for his attention to detail and his highly structured defensive system, Tippett took the reigns from acting head coach Ulf Samuelsson and was well received in the dressing room. So, too, were new Assistant Coach Dave King, an expert at breaking down opponents on tape, and new Goaltenders Coach Sean Burke.
Under the new leadership, the Coyotes showed right away they were a team to be taken seriously by blanking the defending Stanley Cup champion Pittsburgh Penguins, 3-0, at Mellon Arena in just the second game of the season. It was the first of many memorable games for the Coyotes, and everyone connected with the team is hoping there are more pleasant memories to come in the postseason.
“We’re not satisfied just to pat ourselves on the back,” Maloney said after the team clinched its berth in the playoffs. “I know we’ve had a good season to date and we’ve set some franchise records, and that’s great and wonderful and all that. But really it’s meaningless come early April when we wipe the slates clean.”
|Ilya Bryzgalov (right). |
The Coyotes reached the playoffs thanks in great part to their stingy defense; Phoenix allowed juts 2.4 goals per game this season. Goalie Ilya Bryzgalov was the key cog in the defensive unit and he set personal bests in victories (42) and shutouts (eight).
And while the defenders in front of Bryzgalov focused on keeping the puck away from him, they also were chipping in offensively. Coyotes defensemen notched more goals than any other team’s corps of blueliners. Keith Yandle
led the way with 12 as part of his breakout season. Meanwhile, Aucoin showed his goal-scoring skills with six shootout goals – all game-winners.
The Coyotes forwards didn’t set any records for scoring goals in 2009-10, but they certainly scored enough to complement their stingy defense. Vrbata netted 24 goals in his first season back in Phoenix. Scottie Upshall set a career high with 18 goals before being lost for the season to a knee injury. And center Matthew Lombardi broke the 50-point mark for the first time in his career.
A big key to Phoenix’s success was its play on home ice. The Coyotes won 29 of 41 games at Jobing.com Arena, including 10 in a row at one point. No other team in franchise history ever has won that many games at home or that many games in a row at home.
There were some key road victories, too.
Trailing by two goals with 90 seconds left, the Coyotes rallied to beat the Detroit Red Wings, 5-4 in overtime, at Joe Louis Arena on Jan. 26. That victory sparked a six-game winning streak. Later in the season, the Coyotes tied a franchise mark by winning nine games in a row. That streak began on March 4 and was triggered by the acquisitions of five new players – defensemen Derek Morris
and Mathieu Schneider, and forwards Lee Stempniak, Wojtek Wolski and Petteri Nokelainen.
While all of those players contributed in various roles, none made a bigger impact than Stempniak, who notched 13 goals in his first 14 games with the Coyotes after being acquired from Toronto a few hours before the NHL trade deadline. For his efforts, the NHL named Stempniak its First Star of the Month for March.
“I’d be lying if I said I expected to score this many goals,” Stempniak said “…In the summer, I watched a lot of games from my time in St. Louis, and a lot of the success I had there came from going to the right places at the right times. It’s something I’ve focused on this year and it’s been paying off.”
Another highlight to the season came on Dec. 17 when Doan appeared in his 1,000th NHL game. On that day in Columbus, Doan became just the 24th player in NHL history to play 1,000 games for the team that drafted him and the 42nd player to appear in 1,000 games with one franchise.
|Lee Stempniak. |
“I love being at the rink, I love being on the ice, and I love competing,” Doan said. “Plus, I like to push myself to see if I can get better and understand the game better. I feel like I’ve got a lot more games to play and that I can definitely get better as a player.”
The Coyotes earned their berth in the playoffs on March 27 with six games to go in the regular season. After a brief period of celebration, the focus quickly shifted to bigger goals.
“I feel like teams should make the playoffs every year,” Tippett said. “It's nice when they put that 'X' next to your name in the standings, but we have a lot more to accomplish."
Maloney agreed and likes Phoenix’s chances to make a long postseason run.
“We shouldn’t be intimidated by playing anyone,” Maloney said. “I look at this group and I’m saying ‘Why not us?’ Yeah, we’re happy to get to the playoffs but why can’t we win in the playoffs and win now. It’s an exciting time of the year. It’s great for this franchise.”