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Coyotes streaking down the stretch thanks to Bryz

by Jerry Brown
GLENDALE, Ariz. – The Phoenix Coyotes would like to do a little interior decorating at Arena -- and hanging the first division title banner in franchise history from the rafters would be a perfect first touch.

A 3-0 shutout of Columbus on Thursday gave the Coyotes an 8-1-1 record over the last 10 games and a 15-5-2 record since Feb. 5 – when another shutout, a 1-0 blanking of the Wild in Minnesota, sent the Coyotes on a furious stretch run for the second straight year.

Sitting fourth in the Western Conference but still a ways from clinching a playoff berth in this wild race, the Coyotes suddenly have a bolder idea – catching the first-place Sharks. San Jose leads the Pacific Division with 95 points, just two ahead of Phoenix, and the rivals have three head-to-head games during the final two weeks of the season. The first meeting comes here Saturday.

"It's been an interesting year and to be down to the last few games and have an opportunity to decide what's going to happen … it's great for us," captain Shane Doan said. "San Jose has a great team and we're gonna have to be good. We'll count on our big fella a lot and try to find a way."

The "big fella" is goalie Ilya Bryzgalov, who picked the perfect time to regain the form that made him a Vezina Trophy candidate last season. Phoenix has been beset by injuries and their play as been inconsistent – but Bryzgalov has been there to keep the Coyotes pointed forward.

His 29-save shutout Thursday was his 21st in less than four years with Phoenix – tying fellow Russian Nikolai Khabibulin's franchise record in 33 less games (284-251). He has seven this season and along with two more by backup Jason LaBarbera they have the team record for shutouts in a season (Khabibulin and Jimmy Waite had nine in 1998-99).

"He's amazing the way he's playing and the confidence he shows. Now he's starting to play the puck too," Coyotes forward Mikkel Boedker said. "The whole team is just thanking God we have him. He's helping up win games and he's been our best player by far."

The Coyotes have been without defenseman Ed Jovanovski for five weeks (orbital bone surgery) and won't have him for at least two more weeks. Martin Hanzal, the team's top two-way center, has missed three weeks and might be a question mark for the playoffs with lower body issues. Lauri Korpikoski, the offensive surprise of the season with 18 goals, left Wednesday game with an upper-body injury, forcing the Coyotes to call up Ryan Hollweg from San Antonio on an emergency basis.

"Right now, we're focused on playing as best we can and trying to make sure our M*A*S*H* unit isn't too big," Phoenix coach Dave Tippett said. "But I think we can be even better. Some of that could be from getting injured players back. But I like that we just hang around games until we can figure out a way to win."

Bryzgalov, who will start for the 33rd time in the last 35 games against the Sharks, is usually a big part of that. He's allowed a total of four goals in the last four games and two goals or less in six of the last seven. After struggled through injuries in December and January and inconsistent play in February, he has found his game and the Coyotes are riding him toward the top of the division standings.

"He's been a workhorse playing a ton and winning a lot. When we need him, he's there and he gives you that one stop that one save that changes the game," Doan said. "It's so huge when your goalie is your best player."

With the Phoenix Suns in danger of missing the NBA playoffs and the woeful Arizona Diamondbacks heading toward a long season in baseball, the oft-forgotten Coyotes have the attention of Valley sports fans for something other than the ownership saga. Fans eager to hear about something that doesn't involve municipal bonds and gift clauses are pumped about another playoff White Out – and the chance to surpass the Sharks and do some decorating.

"A banner would be nice," Doan said. "Banners are always nice."
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