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E.J. Express: Coyotes have bright future

by EJ Hradek

When the emotions fade, the Coyotes will realize two things about their special spring run.

First, they'll regret not finding their game sooner in the Western Conference Finals against the Kings. The Coyotes fell into an 0-2 hole on home ice before reconnecting with their identity. By the time they figured out a way to combat the red-hot Kings, they had little room for error.

That tiny space evaporated in overtime in Game 5 when Dustin Penner (more on him a little later) shoveled a loose puck past brilliant goaltender Mike Smith to put the final dagger in Phoenix's season.

The other, more important thing they'll realize is they've got some real high-end players. This is much more a real good team than a bunch of upstarts on a Cinderella run.

Mike Smith
Mike Smith
Goalie - PHX
RECORD: 9-7-3
GAA: 1.99 | SVP: 0.944
In goal, they have the 30-year-old Smith, who after some tough times in Tampa Bay is living up to the promise he showed as a young backup netminder in Dallas. Big and athletic, Smith is among the very best players at his position. Fortunately, the Coyotes have him under contract for another season at the bargain rate of $2 million. GM Don Maloney might want to start thinking about ways to keep him long-term.

On the blue line, there are few teams that can boast a pair of dynamic young puck-movers like Keith Yandle and Oliver Ekman-Larsson. The two defensemen have different personalities. The American-born Yandle, 25, is fiery, while the 20-year-old Swede Ekman-Larsson is cool. They both, however, have a competitive nature that runs deep. These two could anchor the Phoenix blue line for another decade and beyond.

Yandle and Ekman-Larsson soon could be joined by 20-year-old Brandon Gormley, currently turning heads for the Shawinigan Cataractes at the 2012 MasterCard Memorial Cup. A first-round pick in 2010 (No. 13), Gormley figures to be another nice piece to the club's long-term future.

The Coyotes don't have the same kind of elite talent up front, but they must be thrilled with the development of speedy 22-year-old winger Mikkel Boedker, who scored a pair of overtime goals in the first-round series victory against Chicago and raised his game to another level in the latter portion of the conference finals.

While Maloney and his scouts likely would like to improve their skill level and depth up the middle, the Coyotes are positioned to be a dangerous team in the coming years. If the ownership issue can be finalized, this special spring fling might just be the first of several for this group.

Now, let's take a quick spin on the Express.

The U.S. will join Russia, Slovakia and a still-to-be-determined qualifier in Group A. (Photo: Getty Images)

FIVE-RING CIRCUS: While there's no certainty yet on whether NHL players will participate at the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia, the three four-nation groups have been decided for the tournament. And there's better news for Canada than there is for Team USA.

The U.S. will join Russia, Slovakia and a still-to-be-determined qualifier in Group A. That's a potentially killer pool.

Canada fell into the softer Group B, with Finland, Norway and a qualifier; while the Czech Republic, Sweden, Switzerland and a final qualifier will compete in Group C.

Nine countries will battle for those three open qualifier spots during three tournaments next February.

The three groups were determined by the world rankings at the finish of the IIHF World Championship, which was won by Russia last Sunday.

In the Olympic hockey tournament, the top two teams from each pool plus the next best two teams will advance to the quarterfinals. You’ll need to know all this stuff if the League agrees to send its stars to Sochi.

CREASE HELP: While their local rivals up the freeway have been making some serious headlines, the Ducks quietly are preparing for next season.

Earlier in the week, Anaheim signed 29-year-old Swedish goalie Viktor Fasth to a one-way, one-year deal worth $1 million. The Ducks hope Fasth can come to North America and be an effective backup to overworked starter Jonas Hiller, who played a League-high 73 games in 2011-12.

Backups Dan Ellis, Jeff Deslauriers and Iiro Tarkki combined for a mediocre 5-6 record in 15 games during the season, never gaining the confidence of club management.

Fasth just finished working the crease for Sweden at the World Championship, going 4-2 with two shutouts.

Anaheim has signed 29-year-old Swedish goalie Viktor Fasth to a one-way, one-year deal worth $1 million. (Photo:

In 46 games with AIK of the Swedish Elite League this season, Fasth recorded a 2.04 goals-against average with a .934 save percentage, earning him a second straight Honken Trophy, awarded annually to the best goaltender in the SEL.

The last Swedish league goalie to win consecutive Honken honors? That would be a fellow by the name of Henrik Lundqvist, who took home the award three consecutive years, from 2003 to 2005.

PACIFIC COAST PENNER: If the Sharks are looking for ways to earn a trip to the Cup Final, GM Doug Wilson might want to pursue Kings forward Dustin Penner if he hits the open market as a free agent July 1.

Penner, 29, seems to be good luck for California-based teams. As a rookie, he was part of the Ducks' 2007 title run.

Now, five years later, Penner has helped the Kings to just the franchise’s second-ever trip to the Cup final.

"I'm going to try to take it all in this time," Penner said after ending the series with his overtime goal in Game 5. "Hopefully I'll have the same result."

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