The Phoenix Coyotes didn't make the playoffs last season, but the start of a youth movement brought signs of hope for the future. They've gotten even younger this season, and so far it's paying off.
The Coyotes will look to open with three straight wins for the first time since 2003-04 on Wednesday when they continue a four-game road trip at the United Center against the Chicago Blackhawks.
With 2005 and 2006 first-round draft picks Martin Hanzal and Peter Mueller playing prominent roles last season, the Coyotes improved by 16 points from their 2006-07 finish, winding up with 83 points and a winning record despite missing out on the playoffs for the fifth consecutive season.
Phoenix (2-0-0) traded for veteran center Olli Jokinen in the offseason, but also brought up more key youngsters from its farm system. Kyle Turris, the third overall selection in the 2007 draft, made the team, as did a pair of 2008 first-rounders - wingers Mikkel Boedker and Viktor Tikhonov.
They've wasted no time making contributions, as Turris and Boedker scored their first NHL goals on Sunday in a 4-2 win at Anaheim, and all five players have logged significant ice time in the two victories.
"These kids are pretty unique and they are pretty good," coach Wayne Gretzky said. "I think although they're kids, they're pretty mature. They really have their eyes wide-open and are having a lot of fun."
Combined with Jokinen, who has a goal and two assists already, and Shane Doan - the team's leading returning scorer who netted two goals against Anaheim - Gretzky likes what he's seen.
"They're a special group. The veteran players around them have brought them along nicely," he said. "They play hard and they want to get better and it's fun to be around them."
Phoenix was 21-17-3 on the road last season, and the win in Anaheim has it off to a good start away from Jobing.com Arena so far. The Blackhawks (0-2-1) can't say the same about their road record - they were outscored 8-4 in losses to the New York Rangers and Washington to open the season.
Chicago, itself led by young stars Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews, picked up its first point of the new season on Monday in its home opener, but fell 3-2 in a shootout to Nashville.
"I thought it was a much better performance," Blackhawks coach Denis Savard said. "They worked and battled better than they had."
Chicago was 10th in the league in scoring last season with 234 goals, but it's been a rocky start offensively for the Blackhawks, who have put up just two goals in each game so far. No one has more than one goal, and Toews hasn't found the back of the net despite a team-high 12 shots.
"We're not going to win many games scoring two goals unless the goaltender stands on his head," said the 19-year-old Kane, who has a goal and an assist in three games. "We've got to start scoring goals, simple as that."
Kane and Toews combined for a goal and six assists in four meetings with the Coyotes last season, helping Chicago win three of them. Left wing Dustin Byfuglien had his only career hat trick in a 6-1 win over Phoenix at the United Center on Nov. 30.
Blackhawks goaltender Cristobal Huet is 3-0-0 with a tie and a 2.68 goals-against average in four career starts against Phoenix, while Coyotes goaltender Ilya Bryzgalov is 4-2-2 with a 1.92 GAA lifetime versus Chicago.