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Pacific: Coyotes on the prowl

by Doug Ward /

Evgeni Nabokov currently leads the league with 23 wins.
At the midway point of the season, the San Jose Sharks and Dallas Stars are tied for the Pacific Division with 52 points, a total that places them third overall in the NHL.

San Jose goaltender Evgeni Nabokov has started every game for the Sharks and looks to be among the frontrunners for the Vezina Trophy. Nabokov went 10-4-1 with a 1.96 goals-against average in December.

The Ducks, meanwhile, have Conn Smythe winner Scott Niedermayer back in the fold, and are grinding their way into contention for the Pacific Division title, picking up 14 of a possible 20 points in their last 10 games (6-2-2).

Los Angeles is in the midst of yet another disappointing season. With a 15-26-2 record and a mere 32 points, the Kings rank 30th in the 30-team League.

And then, there are the Phoenix Coyotes.

You’ll find them somewhere between the best and worst the division has to offer, but with the Coyotes it’s not so much about where they are as where they are headed. And with four consecutive wins and 43 points, the Coyotes are a team on the upswing.

The Coyotes are just four points behind the Colorado Avalanche, who currently hold the final playoff position in the Western Conference. Columbus (44 points) and St. Louis (45 points) are the only teams between the Coyotes and the Avs, which means postseason hockey in the Valley of the Sun is still very much a possibility.

The Coyotes are three games above .500 (21-18-1) at the midway point. A year ago, coach Wayne Gretzky’s team was 18-20-2 after 40 games, so the young Coyotes are clearly headed in the right direction.

Gretzky said the biggest difference between last season’s Coyotes and this season’s new-and-improved version is a better defense and more discipline.

Phoenix ranks 11th in the NHL defensively, giving up 2.65 goals per game. That’s a huge improvement from last season, when the Coyotes were the League’s third-worst defensive team, allowing 3.44 goals per contest.

The Coyotes were shorthanded 425 times last season, more than any team except the Kings. So far this season, the Coyotes have iced their penalty-killing unit 169 times, putting them on pace to eliminate more than 80 shorthanded situations over the course of the season.

“Our guys have been very conscious of playing solid defense,” Gretzky told The Arizona Republic. “The forwards have been helping the defensemen, the defensemen are blocking shots, helping the goaltender, and the goaltending here has been very good.”

Since arriving from Anaheim on waivers Nov. 17, goalie Ilya Bryzgalov has posted a 12-8-1 record with a 2.20 GAA and .928 save percentage. With 14 victories this season, Bryzgalov has an opportunity to reach 30 wins for the first time in his career.

Saturday, Bryzgalov stopped all three of Anaheim’s shootout attempts to secure the Coyotes’ 3-2 win against the Ducks. Bryzgalov has been a money goalie, posting a 4-1 record in games that are tied after regulation.

Gretzky called Saturday’s win against the defending Stanley Cup champs the best game his improving team has played all year. As the Coyotes’ play has intensified, so, too, has the reaction from the crowd at Arena. “It was a playoff atmosphere in the building,” Gretzky said.

Offensively, the Coyotes rank No. 21 in the League, scoring goals at a clip of 2.55 per game. Captain Shane Doan, on pace for a career-high 71 points, leads the Coyotes in scoring with 34 points. Radim Vrbata, meanwhile, is having a breakout year. With 18 goals and 29 assists, the 26-year-old Czech Republic native is on pace for 38 goals and 67 points, both career highs. Vrbata has eight points in his past five games.

Rob Blake

Rumor Mill -- The Kings began the week 15 points out of the final playoff spot in the Western Conference, and as their hopes of returning to the postseason for the first time since 2002 fade, the possibility of a unloading some of their veterans before the Feb. 26 trade deadline increases. Defenseman Rob Blake, in the second year of a two-year deal, is the player mentioned most often in trade talks. Blake, 38, has a no-trade clause in his contract, but has indicated he would waive it if the Kings were to deal him to a contender. … Teemu Selanne has begun skating in Anaheim, but is still undecided on whether or not he has the desire to return to the NHL grind. Anaheim GM Brian Burke told The Los Angeles Times the Ducks would love to have the right wing back, provided he is ready to dedicate himself to hockey. “He has to tell me he has a passion to return and play,” Burke said. “If he does, we have great interest in bringing him back. But not unless he truly wants to return to the Ducks.” … Anaheim’s Samuel Pahlsson, who has missed seven consecutive games with an abdominal strain, remains sidelined indefinitely. … Former Kings draftee Tom Glavine (Los Angeles selected the Braves pitcher in the fourth round of the 1984 Entry Draft) was scheduled to practice with the Atlanta Thrashers Monday, but had to cancel due to an illness. …The Stars, who began the week mired in a four-game losing streak, have been struggling on the power play, going 0-for-18 during the past five games. … Dallas’s top minor league affiliate, the Iowa Stars, will travel to Chicago with their parent club for a game vs. the Chicago Wolves on Wednesday. Dallas plays the Blackhawks at the United Center that same night. The Iowa Stars were in Texas for a Sunday game at Houston. … San Jose has the NHL’s best road record at 16-3-2, but is just 7-9-4 at HP Pavilion. “There’s no rhyme or reason for it,” Joe Thornton said. “We’re playing lights out on the road. It’s crazy.” Despite their home ice woes — and a recent flu bug that that swept through the team — the Sharks’ 52 points are third most in the NHL, behind only Detroit (67) and Ottawa (58).

Who’s Hot -- The Kings’ Alexander Frolov has eight points (three goals, five assists) in his past three games, while teammate Ladislav Nagy has eight points (four goals, four assists) in four games. Blake, meanwhile, has three assists in two games. … Doan has five points (two goals, three assists) in two games. … Anaheim goaltender Jean-Sebastien Giguere is 1-0-1 with a 1.44 GAA and a .951 save percentage in his last two starts.

Who’s Not -- Los Angeles goaltender Jason LaBarbera has lost his past two starts while giving up 3.94 goals per game and stopping just 85.7 percent of the shots he faced. … Dallas goaltender Mike Smith has lost two of his last three starts while posting a 3.17 GAA and lowly .871 save percentage.

The Week Ahead -- After dropping three of five games, the Ducks began the week by beating Nashville Monday in the first of four straight games at home. After Toronto makes a rare visit to Anaheim Wednesday, the Ducks will square off against a pair of more familiar Pacific Division rivals when San Jose (Sunday) and Dallas (Jan. 15) visit Honda Center. … The Stars began the week by hosting Minnesota and will now embark on a five-game trip that takes them to Chicago (Wednesday), St. Louis (Thursday), Los Angeles (Saturday), Anaheim (Jan. 15), and San Jose (Jan. 17). … Los Angeles plays the final three games of a six-game homestand when it hosts Nashville (Tuesday), Toronto (Thursday), and Dallas (Saturday). … Phoenix begins a four-game homestand against Calgary. Edmonton (Thursday), Vancouver (Friday), and Minnesota (Sunday) also visit. … The Sharks host Vancouver (Thursday) and Toronto (Saturday) before a Sunday showdown with the Ducks in Anaheim.


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