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Coyotes creating buzz in Phoenix, around NHL

NHL.com @NHL

SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. (AP) -The secret is out on the Phoenix Coyotes.

After playing largely under the radar the past few seasons, they are winning a lot now - and it's getting noticed.

When the Coyotes took the ice for practice Friday, they skated in front of a large group of fans buzzing with excitement. Afterward, they walked into their locker room to find it full of TV crews and reporters.

After an offseason full of legal issues and a coaching switch just before the opener, the Coyotes have grabbed the attention of this crowded sports market and become the league's most surprising team.

"You can see we are getting some attention. It's nice to see," defenseman Zbynek Michalek said. "We knew if we played well, people would come. That's what happened."

Phoenix returns home Saturday for the first time since March 10 with the NHL's longest active winning streak (seven) and just a handful of points out of first place in the Western Conference.

The Coyotes are coming off their franchise-record 44th victory and will play Chicago in front of a sellout crowd that could challenge for the largest in the team's history in Arizona.

"We're glad that we're in a position that we can be talking about (those things) instead of sitting here talking about other things that have been going on," captain Shane Doan said.

Those include finding a new owner after the NHL bought the team in November and an uncertain future. The Ice Edge Holdings investment group signed a letter of intent to purchase the team in December and is committed to keeping the team in Arizona. If a deal can't be struck, there's a possibility the team could move.

That possibility existed before this season as well after former owner Jerry Moyes took the team into Chapter 11 bankruptcy in May. That led to numerous legal headlines, a summer spent in the courtroom and the resignation of Wayne Gretzky, the managing partner, coach and face of the franchise.

There was also a belief that the Coyotes needed to have a breakout season - to show there is a fan base that would support an NHL franchise which has lost millions for years - to improve their chances of staying. In a sign of optimism and a little of doing business as usual, the Coyotes on Wednesday announced they are accepting deposits for season tickets for next season.

"Everybody knew that this is a pretty important season after everything the team went through and the potential of moving to a different city," Michalek said.

Despite so many potential distractions swarming, the Coyotes have responded. They have the fourth-most points in the league and are on the verge of their first playoff appearance since 2002.

"I think all the adversity off the ice has really helped us, has really bonded our group together," said coach Dave Tippett, hired 10 days before the season opener and a leading contender for coach of the year. "They recognize we can do good things on the ice."

Much of the team's success, players and team officials said, can be attributed to the goaltending duo of Ilya Bryzgalov and Jason LaBarbera. Bryzgalov leads the league in shutouts (eight), is second in wins (38) and fifth in goals-against average (2.26). The Coyotes are tied for first in team save percentage (2.33).

"I said in September we need great goaltending. ... Their numbers are in the top of the league, and that's were we need to be to have success," general manager Don Maloney said.

Playing in front of elite goaltending has spread confidence throughout the locker room. On Thursday in Florida, Phoenix wrapped up a road trip by rallying from a 3-0 deficit in the third period to win 4-3 in a shootout.

"Finally after all these years we are a playoff team," Michalek said. "It feels good. But we are not done. We know there is much more work ahead of us. ... Our confidence is really high right now. Hopefully we can keep riding it."

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