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Coyotes finding their game after slow start

by Jerry Brown
GLENDALE, Ariz. -- For the first 12 games of the season, the Phoenix Coyotes couldn't get out of their own way.

No one was scoring. They were being outshot, by a country mile, every night. The penalty box so crowded, it looked like it was part of a fraternity prank. And in overtime, where the Coyotes dominated last season, they were coming up empty.

But over the last three weeks, the Coyotes have gotten healthy – physically and mentally – smarter and hungrier. Now it's the rest of the NHL that's getting out of the way.

Tuesday's 5-0 domination of the Edmonton Oilers gave Phoenix its seventh win in a row, tying St. Louis for the longest streak in the NHL, and ran its unbeaten streak in regulation to nine (7-0-2). In three weeks, the Coyotes have gone from the bottom of the jam-packed Western Conference to battling for the lead.

Suddenly the ice is tilted. The goals are coming. The penalty box keeper is lonely. And the team that won 50 games and collected 107 points last season is back on pace for a repeat performance -- the Coyotes are two points ahead of their 2009-10 pace after 21 games.

"No one is shocked we've won seven in a row," right wing Lee Stempniak said. "We played well below our standards and our expectations for the first 10-12 games. Now we've settled down defensively, we're not getting outshot and we're more effective in the offensive zone, which takes pressure off the D-men and our goalies. We don't have it going for 60 minutes yet, but you can feel it coming."

It's all for one – out of necessity – and one for all. No one has more than Stempniak's 7 goals, but 11 forwards have at least three. The lone exception is the captain, Shane Doan, mired in a miserable start that has featured injuries, a suspension and a single goal in 11 games. But when everyone else is scoring and the team is winning, the need to press is alleviated.

"We have a very confident group with no major egos, and as we're starting to win our chemistry is even better," Doan said. "No one can feel sorry for themselves because you might be the guy we need two goals from that night. It's the best feeling, because everyone in the room knows they are important and they are contributing. And it you have an off-night, Tip will call you on it and someone else will get your ice and your chances."

"Tip" would be Dave Tippett, the reigning NHL Coach of the Year, who is only mildly impressed with this seven-game, two-week winning streak that started with a gritty 2-1 win in Chicago on Nov. 10. But even he gave a approving nod to the recent road sweep of Calgary, Edmonton and Vancouver, the first since the team moved to Phoenix from Winnipeg in 1996.

"We've come a long way from the start of the year, and the best thing I can say about this group is they are being rewarded for their hard work," Tippett said. "We're finding ways to win in some tough buildings. Not many teams can jump out and sweep Western Canada. All three games, all we heard was how desperate those teams were and we found a way to win.

"But we're at the 20-game mark, we're just getting going. For us to be as good as we need to be to compete in the back 40 games (of the season) and the playoffs ... we're going to have to be a lot better. I'll get excited when I feel like we're really good enough to really do something. Right now we've still got a lot of work to do."

The numbers show the improvement. After taking 58 penalties in the first 14 games, the Coyotes have gone to the box only 19 times during the seven-game streak – including a run of more than 97 minutes without a single call before the streak was snapped against the Oilers on Tuesday. Wojtek Wolski, after being benched for two games for poor play and calling himself out for poor play, and Ray Whitney didn't score a single goal in the first 10 games. Over the last 11, they have combined for 7 goals and 21 points – on separate lines.

Then there are the hat tricks. Four different Coyotes collected a trio during a span of seven home games. All four players – Stempniak, Ed Jovanovski, Vernon Fiddler and Whitney – came into that game without a single goal all season. For Stempniak, Jovanovski and Fiddler, it was the first hat trick of their careers.

Everyone is pitching in. Against the Oilers, top defensemen Jovanovski and Adrian Aucoin sat out. No worries. David Schlemko recorded the first two-assist game of his career and rookie Oliver Ekman-Larsson added an assist before being sent back to the minors.

Behind it all is goalie Ilya Bryzgalov, the only Coyote who can say he's shown up all season. After keeping the team afloat with a steady stream of 35-save nights, his .920 save percentage and 10-2-5 record proves that last season's Vezina runner-up is still in the groove. His shutout over the Oilers on Tuesday was his 15th as a Coyote since being plucked off waivers from Anaheim in November 2007.

"Early in the season, we were undisciplined," said Hanzal, who was bench in Edmonton last week and responded with two goals against Oilers on Tuesday. "Once we stopped taking penalties and putting ourselves in bad spots, we started winning games. It was pretty easy."

Player First 10 Games Last 11 Games
Ray Whitney 0-3-3 3-9-12
Radim Vrbata 3-0-3 3-7-10
Martin Hanzal 1-0-1 5-3-8
Lauri Korpikoski 2-0-2 3-5-8
Wojtek Wolski 0-4-4 4-5-9
6-7-13 18-29-47
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