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Coyotes putting together franchise?s best season

by Jerry Brown
Led by 53 goals from Dale Hawerchuk -- one of six players to score 30 or more goals during the season -- the 1984-85 Winnipeg Jets were by far the best team in the 30-year-history of the Winnipeg/Phoenix franchise.

They won 43 games, accumulated 96 points and won nine straight games from Mar. 8-27 of 1984 -- part of a furious 10-0-3 finish to the season. All of those totals stood as franchise records ever since.

Until now.

In the most improbable of seasons, the Phoenix Coyotes have gone from a 79-point collection of spare parts and fuzzy-faced kids to a team which, with 10 games left in the season, has its sights set on the first division title in the history of this star-crossed franchise.

The Coyotes, facing uncertainty about their ownership situation and the future of the franchise in Phoenix, won their 45th game of the season and eighth in a row with a wild 5-4 shootout win over Chicago on Saturday, before a packed house in Glendale. The win moved them a point behind slumping San Jose for the Pacific Division lead and two points behind Western Conference-leading Chicago.

Sunday night in Dallas, the Coyotes can tie the franchise record for consecutive wins and break the mark for points in a season with a win over the Stars -- the team that fired coach Dave Tippett after last season despite a strong track record of wins and playoff appearances.

The Stars are eight points out of the final playoff spot in the West under Tippett's replacement, Marc Crawford -- while Tippett is the odds-on favorite to win the Jack Adams trophy as his team shoots for banners and beyond.

"It was an unbelievable atmosphere in the building (Saturday)," Tippett said after his team rallied from 2-0 and 4-2 deficits to win for the 16th time in its last 20 games since Jan. 26. "Hopefully we can keep pushing this thing along and get ourselves in the playoffs. I envision that will be the same atmosphere down the stretch and into the playoffs."

Tippett has pushed all the right buttons this season, and worked his magic again Saturday. With his team struggling for offense in the third period, he moved winger Wojtek Wolski on a line with center Vernon Fiddler and red-hot Lee Stempniak to shake things up. Stempniak scored twice, once with Wolski and Fiddler assisting, during Phoenix's second three-goal third period in as many games.

Stempniak, who had 14 goals in 62 games Kessel scores again in Leafs' win with Toronto this season, has nine in his first eight as a Coyote -- scoring two in a game for the third time against the Blackhawks.

"I wanted to come here and have a fresh start. Things could have worked out better," said Stempniak who, like Wolski, is a perfect 8-0 in a Coyotes sweater. "You can see people really getting into it. It's a loud building. I even thought that when it wasn't full. But (Saturday) was really electric."

Suddenly, a team that was just trying to win a playoff spot for the first time in eight years is a full 14 points clear of ninth-place Calgary and has bigger fish to fry. The Sharks go into Edmonton tonight having lost four straight and their entire margin for error with the Coyotes. The two teams meet in San Jose in the season finale on April 10 and there could be a lot on the line.

"It's fun to be looking up and trying to catch first-place teams," captain Shane Doan said. "But we realize there is a long way to go and we have to keep pushing. We know we're good enough now, if we play the right way. If we go for 60 minutes and play like we're capable, we are confident in our ability to win.

"Not a lot of people would have picked us to be in this spot. We're enjoying it. But the only way to keep enjoying it is keep the room tight, stay focused and keep winning."

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