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Coyotes' offense being led by its defense

by Jerry Brown

GLENDALE, Ariz. -- It's been more than a decade since he's seen the "Morris for Norris" signs around the Pepsi Center when he played with the Colorado Avalanche. But these days, 35-year-old Derek Morris said he's happy to be just one of the boys in Phoenix. And a part of the best NHL blue line nobody knows about.

The Phoenix defense was at it again Thursday with Morris scoring a goal, Keith Yandle adding two assists and Oliver Ekman-Larsson and Zbynek Michalek contributing an assist each as the Coyotes rallied from a 3-0 first-period hole to beat the Nashville Predators 5-4 in a shootout at Arena.

It marked the fifth straight game that the Phoenix defense had collected at least three points in a game -- a total of 22 points in that span.

In Phoenix – D is For Dynamic

The Phoenix Coyotes' defense core, led by Oliver Ekman-Larsson and Keith Yandle, lead the NHL in goals (12) and points (41) from the blue line entering the weekend. Ekman-Larsson, Yandle and Derek Morris are all among the top-10 scoring defensemen, and a Phoenix blueliner has scored or assisted on 31 of the Coyotes' 48 goals this season.

Player G A PTS NHL Rank+
O. Ekman-Larsson 3 8 11 T-1st
K. Yandle* 1 10 11 T-1st
D. Morris ** 4 5 9 T-7th
*Leads NHL defensemen in assists
**Tied for lead among NHL defensemen in goals
+ Through Oct. 31.

Yandle has eight of them, allowing him to tie Ekman-Larsson and Alex Pietrangelo of the St. Louis Blues for second in the the League defensemen point race with 11. The Ottawa Senators' Erik Karlsson and P.K. Subban of the Montreal Canadiens are tied for first with 13 points. Yandle's 10 assists is also tied for the League lead among defensemen with Karlsson and Subban.

Morris' goal Thursday was his fourth of the season, tying him with Drew Doughty of the Los Angeles Kings and Torey Krug of the Boston Bruins for the lead among blueliners.

Heading into the weekend, the Phoenix defense corps led the NHL in goals (12) and points (41) and has figured in the scoring of 31 of Phoenix's 48 goals. They are a big reason why the Coyotes are 6-0-1 at home and off to their best start in 13 years (9-3-2) heading into their game Saturday at the San Jose Sharks, the team with the League's best record.

"They are the reason we're able to come back in games," Phoenix captain Shane Doan said of his defensemen. "Our defense is so underrated and so good, they put us in positions to be successful. As forwards we benefit from having the best puck-moving and shooting defensemen in the League."

Phoenix coach Dave Tippett stresses strict system play but gives his talented defensemen -- especially the 22-year-old Ekman-Larsson and the 27-year-old Yandle -- the green light to jump into the play and help Phoenix's forwards.

"At the start of the season we talked about how hard it is to score in this League and how we want our defense involved. And we have some players that you don't have to tell them that twice," Tippett said. "When you get down in a game -- and we've been down a lot -- a guy like Keith Yandle can really impact the game with his ability to move the puck.

"Ekman-Larsson just keeps getting better offensively and they both have responsible partners (Morris and Michalek) that allow them that freedom."

While Michalek sticks to the dirty work in his zone – his five blocked shots Thursday give him 41 for the season, second in the League behind Andrew MacDonald of the New York Islanders heading into the weekend – Morris has joined the scoring parade this season.

He had eight goals total in the previous four seasons and has had only one double-digit goal season, when he had 11 in 2002-03 with the Colorado Avalanche. He also had a career-best 48 points that season while setting up Milan Hejduk, Joe Sakic and Peter Forsberg and sharing the blue line with Rob Blake.

"We all believe we can contribute in some way and we know that we need everyone because we don't have those superstars that jump out at you," Morris said. "We have a lot of depth in here and the stats are proving it.

"I think our forwards do a good job of working hard down low and keeping pucks there. We've had a tendency not to use our points much in the past. But as we start doing it and as it starts working, it's opening things up and we're getting tips and deflections and we're spreading the wealth around."

In a 5-4 win Saturday against the Edmonton Oilers, four Phoenix defensemen -- Ekman-Larsson, Yandle, David Schlemko and Michael Stone -- scored in a game for the first time since the Coyotes moved to Phoenix in 1996. Three days later Morris scored the game-winner in a 3-1 win against the Los Angeles Kings. He has a point in eight of the 12 games he's played this season; Phoenix is 7-1 in those games.

"He's a having a heck of a year," Tippett said. "You look at the points he's put up, the minutes he plays and the situations we've put him in, he's been a really good player for us. Everyone talk about Yandle and [Ekman-Larsson], but Derek Morris has done a great job. He shoots the puck hard and is finding ways to get it to the net.

"His shot is hard and it's very underrated. The goalies know how hard he shots. And he shoots to score, not just to get it there and hope to score. He almost put [the goal Thursday] through the net."

The Coyotes will need all that firepower Saturday in San Jose when they face the 10-1-2 Sharks, who lead the NHL with 51 goals while only allowing 23, tied for third-fewest, in 13 games. That run includes a 4-1 win against Phoenix on Oct. 5 that only was that close thanks to 47 saves by Phoenix goalie Mike Smith.

"We haven't talked about out record yet because you look at the other teams like San Jose and Colorado and St. Louis and Anaheim and no one is losing," Doan said. "We know we are a good team. This is probably one of, if not the best, team I've been on here. But that isn't going to make it any easier."

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