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Coyotes have used summer bashing as motivation

by Dave Lozo

"We heard all summer long how we're going to finish last, we're a terrible team. It kind of challenges you and I think it challenged everybody in the room." -- Shane Doan

To hear Coyotes captain Shane Doan tell it, his offseason was nothing more than a six-month punch in the stomach.

As if listening to rumors about the franchise folding and moving wasn't enough, the Coyotes had to deal with just about everyone picking them to be the worst team in the League.

"It was hard just listening to everyone kind of bash the city," said Doan, who has spent the last 13 seasons in Phoenix and his entire career with the organization going back to its days in Winnipeg, "saying how bad the hockey was there, how bad the market was there and everything. If the Rangers or anybody hadn't been to the playoffs in seven or eight years, I don't care how great of a hockey market it is there, no one is going to support them.

"That's really what it came down to. It's been a while since we have had team success, and when we have team success, the organization will have more success."

It would have been easy for Doan and the Coyotes to feel sorry for themselves, to use a tumultuous summer as an excuse to mail it in. But the offseason turmoil did just the opposite. It's been the motivation for Phoenix's solid 6-4-0 start, and it's brought the team closer.

"We heard all summer long how we're going to finish last, we're a terrible team. It kind of challenges you and I think it challenged everybody in the room," Doan said.

"On top of that, the fact that everything that's gone on this summer, it kind of galvanized the room," he added. "You don't get too many chances where you feel like everything is stacked up against you to kind of prove yourself. And really, that's what everyone keeps saying about how everything is stacked up against us. And we felt like it's kind of set up for us to have some success with all the pressure on us."

While the success has encompassed just the first 10 games of the season, it doesn't mean it's any less remarkable.

As of Tuesday morning, the Coyotes have 12 points, tying them for eighth in the Western Conference. After allowing 3.04 goals per game last season, new coach Dave Tippett has installed a more defensive-minded system that has yielded just 22 goals 10 games.

Tippett is pleased with the early results.

"Right now, I look at everybody as on the same page," he said in explaining his team's success. "We've talked about what we have to do to be successful on a consistent basis, and when your leadership, when your top players, are on board with you on that, then it makes everyone's job easier. You have a much better chance of accomplishing what you're trying to accomplish."

The players Tippett speaks of are Doan, defenseman Ed Jovanovski and goaltender Ilya Bryzgalov. Doan (3 goals, 7 assists) and Jovanovski (4 goals, 5 assists) not only are acting as leaders in the dressing room, but they're also the team's top two scorers. And after what easily was his worst year statistically, Bryzgalov has been stellar in notching a 6-3-0 record and a 1.97 goals-against average.

"He's been our best player," Doan said of Bryzgalov. "When your goalie's your best player, it gives your team the best chance to win. Plus he's not only been our best player, he's been the best player on the ice for quite a few games."

One of the reasons Bryzgalov has been able to excel is he's no longer playing in a shooting gallery. The Togliatti, Russia, native faced an average of 30.7 shots per game last season, second-most in the League. Through nine games this season, he's only been asked to stop 22.8 shots per game (although that's slightly skewed because he was pulled during the second period against the Rangers on Monday).

Tippett greatly appreciates what his goaltender has done.

"He's been very solid," Tippett said. "We talked about giving ourselves a chance to win, and he's stopping the ones that he's supposed to, and he's stopping a few more. There haven't been games when he's been bombarded, but he's made timely saves and he's been very solid. If your goaltender does that for you, it gives you a chance."

Lost in all the negativity of the Coyotes' offseason was just how good this team was during the first half of last season. They hit the All-Star break with a 24-19-5 record and were nestled into the fifth spot in the Western Conference.

But the Coyotes fell flat after the layoff, losing 10 of 12 and falling completely out of the playoff chase. Doan laments that streak, and wonders what would have happened if the Coyotes could have maintained their level of play through the second half of last season.

"We were a team that was in fifth in the All-Star break and other than about three weeks where we were terrible, we would've finished probably around fifth if we just kept on the same pace," Doan said. "We got back going again but we couldn't make up the ground we lost. If that had happened, everyone would've been talking about what a great young and up-and-coming team we were.

"Instead, three weeks, we were all of a sudden the worst team in the League."

That's not the case now. The "us vs. them" mentality that has grown out of last season's collapse and this summer's drama is paying off in a big way. But both Doan and Tippett will be the first to caution people to remember that there's a long way to go.

"We realize that we're (10) games into the season, not 75 games into the season," Doan said. "Come talk to me then and we'll see what I have to say."

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