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Pacific: Bryzgalov is top dog for surging Coyotes

by John Kreiser
Who needs a power play to win when you have Ilya Bryzgalov in goal? Certainly not the Phoenix Coyotes.

Little was expected from Phoenix this season after the franchise spent the summer in bankruptcy court and changed coaches in training camp. But the Desert Dogs are riding a five-game winning streak -- their longest in nearly two years -- thanks to the play of Bryzgalov. He earned his NHL-best fourth shutout of the season Monday by blanking Minnesota, 2-0.

Amazingly, the Coyotes are 0-for-18 on the power play during the winning streak. But with Bryzgalov playing some of the best hockey of his career, they don't need a lot of goals.

"Yeah, I guess he's doing OK for us right now," Phoenix captain Shane Doan said with a smile after the win over the Wild. "He's so confident and he makes the game look so easy even when it isn't. He always squares to the puck and guys are always hitting him in the middle of his body. As a shooter, that's so frustrating.

"When your goalie is the best player on the ice, it's a lot easier to play the game."

Phoenix has scored 15 goals during the winning streak. All 15 have come at even strength. Bryzgalov has allowed only seven goals, and the four shutouts are a career high.

A night to remember -- Every player's first NHL game is one he'll never forget. For Dan Sexton, getting to make his debut about 20 miles from where he grew up was even more special.

Sexton, a native of Apple Valley, Minn., was in Peoria, Ill., playing with the AHL's Manitoba Moose, when he got the call to join the Anaheim Ducks after Teemu Selanne broke his left hand in Thursday night's game. Not only would the 22-year-old be playing his first NHL game the next night, he'd be doing it against the Minnesota Wild in St. Paul -- a short drive from where he grew up.

"One of the first things that went through my mind was who they were going to playing the next day," Sexton said. "I said 'OK, I hope this happens.' And it did.

"My dad and mom were really excited." Sexton added. "They had a party they were going to go to that they had to blow off. The team quickly got four tickets for my mom, dad, sister and her boyfriend. That was nice."

Though he couldn't get tickets for many of his friends, he said he was surprised at how many were able to find their way into the Xcel Energy Center, where he was on the second line, playing with Saku Koivu and Bobby Ryan in a 5-4 shootout loss.

"I saw a lot of people there that I didn't talk to or say anything to," said Sexton, signed as an undrafted free agent from Bowling Green. "They gladly bought tickets. I really appreciate that. It's pretty good friends to be able to do that. A lot of them came from two, three hours-plus away to be there, so it was really cool."

Even cooler was his performance four nights later, when he scored his first two NHL goals during a third-period rally as the Ducks overcame a 3-0 deficit for a 4-3 OT win over Dallas. Sexton was named the game's first star.

"Take my coolest previous feeling and multiple it by 10, if not more," Sexton said. "That is what it was. I thought we were due to score, but once it actually happens, you're in shock. To get another one after that, it just felt like a dream. It was unbelievable."

Shining Star -- Dallas captain Brenden Morrow missed most of last season with a knee injury that required surgery. It doesn't seem to have slowed him down this season, on the ice or in the dressing room.

"I think he's unquestionably the leader of this group, both on and off the ice,” Stars coach Marc Crawford told the team's Web site. "He's the conscience of the team. Oftentimes, you can look at the pulse of our team and watch Brenden's play and you're going to have a pretty good idea of how we're going to be on that particular night. His preparation is just excellent. He really does prepare himself. He's a very good professional and a really great example for our younger players."

On the ice, Morrow shook off some early rust and had 12 goals in the Stars' first 30 games, putting him on pace to match the career-high 32 goals he scored in 2007-08.

"It's normal that when you're injured and come back to be a step behind," linemate Mike Ribeiro said. "When you miss two weeks, you're a step behind. He missed a full year and it took him a little bit to get into it. I didn't have the greatest start either, so that didn't help him too much. He seems fine now. I don't think he thinks about it as much as he did at the beginning of the season. He's getting into a rhythm now. His timing is the same as it used to be, his confidence is getting better and that's just good for us."

Morrow feels he still has room for improvement.

"I'm just trying to get better at special teams, playing 5-on-5, late in periods, late in games," he said. "All of those things you just want to keep improving. You never want to be comfortable with how you're playing."

Ersberg sighting -- Erik Ersberg has been the NHL's version of the Maytag repairman -- he just sits and waits. In Ersberg's case, he's been watching as Jonathan Quick played every game in goal for the Los Angeles Kings since he last played on Nov. 13.

But with games at San Jose Wednesday and home against Phoenix Thursday, Ersberg got a chance to dust off his equipment. Coach Terry Murray opted to start him in the Shark Tank Wednesday, saving his starter for the home game the next night.

So Terry -- why not use your starter against the team you're chasing in the standings?

"Well, it's a road game," Murray said after Tuesday's practice. "I'm a big believer in playing my best players at home, and I know Quicker is my No. 1 guy. The home game, to me, is an important game, as this one is, but I always think that if you're going to have that kind of decision that you have to make, I will consistently go with the home game for the No. 1 goalie."

Forgive fans at the Staples Center for wondering who Ersberg is -- before Wednesday, he hadn't played in a home game all season.

Ironically, Ersberg's ability to play well after layoffs is one reason he's in the NHL and not at AHL Manchester. It's a skill he feels not every goalie has.

"We saw it from Ersberg last year," Murray said. "He did a real good job in that particular scenario a couple times, and that's what is going to be required tomorrow. Obviously it's been a while since he played. He has been working hard in the practices. He looks good. He's as good as you could possibly expect, after these many days off without playing a game."

Around the Pacific -- Phoenix has killed 19 of 21 penalties during its five-game winning streak, their longest since winning five in a row from Dec. 31, 2007, to Jan. 8, 2008. ... The schedule is about to turn against the Anaheim Ducks. Tuesday's game against Dallas was their 19th at home against only 11 on the road. Anaheim's next four games and eight of the 10 that remain in December will be played away from the Honda Center. The Ducks are 2-5-4 on the road so far this season. ... Anaheim will miss Selanne, who's likely to miss at least another three weeks with a broken bone in his left hand. The Ducks have won just two of their six shootouts, and Selanne has both winning goals. ... Games that go past regulation have been a nightmare for the Dallas Stars. They fell to 3-8 with a 3-2 shootout loss to Edmonton on Saturday and a 4-3 OT loss at Anaheim three nights later. The Stars are 2-3 in overtime and 1-6 in shootouts. ... Dallas is 24-4-3 against Edmonton at home since moving to Texas in 1993. ... The Kings had a season-low 16 shots against Calgary on Dec. 7, but still won the game 2-1. The teams play twice more against each other this month and are done with the season series on Dec. 30. ... The win over the Flames was just the second for the Kings in their last 13 meetings with Calgary, including a 2-1 road loss on Nov. 21. ... The Sharks ought to start their own airline -- one that has a special San Jose-to-Worcester run. They've climbed to the top of the Western Conference standings despite calling up players from their AHL farm team at a dizzying pace. Former first-rounder Logan Couture, for example, has already been called up six times.
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