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Pacific: A look at the best performances this season

by John Kreiser
No NHL team has been more of a surprise this season than the Phoenix Coyotes, who are headed for the Stanley Cup Playoffs for the first time since 2002. The Coyotes are all but assured of finishing second in the division and fourth in the Western Conference, a remarkable achievement for a franchise that was next-to-last in the West last season and spent the summer in bankruptcy court.

The Coyotes' brilliant season was a team achievement, but no player has meant more to his club than Phoenix goaltender Ilya Bryzgalov, our Pacific Division MVP.

Bryzgalov has been brilliant all season long, setting single-season franchise records for victories (42) and shutouts (eight) while posting a 2.30 goals-against average and a .920 save percentage.

But Bryzgalov's value to the Coyotes goes far beyond mere numbers.

"He's been so good and so consistent," team captain Shane Doan told the team's Web site. "And when Bryzy is really, really good, it looks so easy. I think sometimes he doesn't get the credit he deserves because he makes it look so easy. He's so square and he's so solid with his technical game. He just continues to be our best player."

Bryzgalov also is one of the few Coyotes with significant playoff experience. He won a Cup with Anaheim in 2007, chipping in with a 3-1-0 record and a 2.25 GAA when starter Jean-Sebastien Giguere was out for four games.

He feels the atmosphere in Phoenix is similar to what the Ducks enjoyed three years ago.

"Great group of guys, everybody has a passion to play, everybody wants to prove something to each other and to themselves. Pretty good mix, too, with the young guys and veterans."
-- Coyotes goaltender Ilya Bryzgalov on his teamates in Phoenix

"Great group of guys, everybody has a passion to play, everybody wants to prove something to each other and to themselves. Pretty good mix, too, with the young guys and veterans," he said.

Bryzgalov unquestionably has been the top goaltender in the division as well -- but in any other season, that nod might have gone to Los Angeles' Jonathan Quick, whose team-record 39 wins are a major reason the Kings, like the Coyotes, are headed to the postseason. It's not impossible the two could face each other in the first round of the playoffs.

Best Defenseman: Drew Doughty, Los Angeles Kings -- The Kings chose Doughty with the second pick in the 2008 Entry Draft, but even GM Dean Lombardi couldn't have pictured the young defenseman would become this good this fast.

At age 20, Doughty leads the team's defensemen with 15 goals and 57 points, has a plus-19 rating and plays just under 25 minutes a game -- not to mention his performance as the youngest player on Canada's gold medal-winning team at the Winter Olympics.

Those accomplishments are more than enough to merit talk of a Norris Trophy nomination, at least from his coach.

"I'd throw his name in there," Terry Murray said recently when asked if Doughty should win the trophy given to the NHL's top defenseman. "I threw his name in there for rookie of the year (last year) and he never made the final three, which is still mind-boggling to me. But his year he's been spectacular through this season. The points, the key situations, the fact that the team has moved up in the standings and is starting to get some recognition around the League.

"He's an anchor for us back there, and I think, right now, he's comparable, number-wise and on the defensive part of the game, with plus/minus and minutes played. He has to have some consideration by the people who vote for it, for sure."

Runner-up: Dan Boyle, San Jose

Top forward: Patrick Marleau, San Jose Sharks -- Marleau had a career season in 2008-09, putting up a personal best of 38 goals. He then did something even harder -- bettered that performance the next season.

Marleau has 43 goals this season entering the final week of the season -- a big reason the San Jose Sharks repeated as Pacific Division champions and will go into the playoffs with no worse than the second seed in the Western Conference.

The franchise's career leader in goals (319) and points (691) just quietly goes about doing his job -- scoring goals, putting up points and playing a solid two-way game (plus-21 through Wednesday's games).

GM Doug Wilson is impressed with the way Marleau was able to step up his game after scoring 38 times in 2008-09.

"He played really well last year, but this is the best we've seen him play," Wilson said. "The goal scoring speaks for itself, but the other things he does, including leading by example, are what make him stand out."

Runner-up: Brad Richards, Dallas Stars

Coach of the Year: Dave Tippett, Phoenix Coyotes -- Given the circumstances of his arrival in Phoenix -- taking over a perennial non-playoff team that spent the summer in bankruptcy court barely a week before the start of the regular season -- ranks with the great coaching jobs of any era.

The Stars let Tippett go after Dallas missed the playoffs last spring; Phoenix GM Don Maloney hired him when Wayne Gretzky opted not to return after sitting out much of training camp.

All Tippett did was turn the Coyotes into a playoff team for the first time in eight years. The Coyotes will finish fourth in the West after setting franchise records for points and victories. Tippett did all this while having almost no time before the season to teach any kind of a system.

"Dave has done a remarkable job in, No. 1, eliminating the outside distractions -- the ownership situation and the unrest of the franchise, (and) No. 2, to grab a hold of this group," Maloney said after the Coyotes assured themselves of a playoff berth. "And not only Dave but his staff, (associate coaches) Dave King and Ulf Samuelsson, (assistant coach) Doug Sulliman, (goalie coach) Sean Burke. … Each night we've shown up. There are very few games this year that you can look at and say, 'Wow, we really didn't have it on that night.'

"The preparation this group has put together game in, game out (and) day in, day out is second to none, and that's why we're in the position we're at. That's why we're in the playoffs, and now we have a chance to do something in the playoffs."

Runner-up: Terry Murray, Los Angeles Kings

All-Division Team:

First Team

Goaltender -- Ilya Bryzgalov, Phoenix Coyotes
Defense -- Drew Doughty, Los Angeles Kings
Defense -- Dan Boyle, San Jose Sharks
Center -- Brad Richards, Dallas Stars
Wing -- Patrick Marleau, San Jose Sharks
Wing -- Dany Heatley, San Jose Sharks

Second Team
Goaltender -- Jonathan Quick, Los Angeles Kings
Defense -- Keith Yandle, Phoenix Coyotes
Defense -- Scott Niedermayer, Anaheim Ducks
Center -- Joe Thornton, San Jose Sharks
Wing -- Corey Perry, Anaheim Ducks
Wing -- Loui Eriksson, Dallas Stars
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