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Versatile Korpikoski helping Coyotes charge

by Jerry Brown
He can play all three forward positions and serves as a nice fit on any of the four lines. He blocks shots, scores shorthanded, checks the opposition's top skill and his stickhandling and shooting is becoming a strong compliment to his blazing speed.

To all but diehard Phoenix Coyote fans and shrewd NHL fantasy league owners, Lauri Korpikoski isn't any easier to recognize than his name is to pronounce. That is changing quickly, with the Coyotes now streaking toward another Western Conference playoff berth and the former understudy now playing a starting role.

The 24-year-old Finn, scooped up from the New York Rangers in the summer of 2009 for a player no longer in the League (Enver Lisin), is tied for the Coyotes team lead with 17 goals, has chipped in 19 assists and is doing it all for the bargain-basement price of $700,000.

This from the same player who scored in only three of the 71 games he played last season (five goals total), producing 11 points while playing mostly fourth-line minutes and penalty-killing shifts.

"We've got a lot of guys who can score and I'm glad to have the opportunity to contribute to that every night," Korpikoski said. "Last year, I wasn't playing all the time and not too many minutes.  I was afraid to make a mistake or I would be back on the bench. Now I'm playing with a lot of confidence, I can take some chances and know I'll be back out there for the next shift."

Korpikoski has found a home at left wing alongside Eric Belanger and Phoenix captain Shane Doan – a spot that was manned first this season by the enigmatic and expensive Wojtek Wolski then by the spunky and popular Scottie Upshall. Both forwards have since been traded to beef up Phoenix's defense in the form of Michal Rozsival and Rostislav Klesla.

"I had a meeting with him early on, just a pep-talk thing," said Phoenix general manager Don Maloney, who was the assistant GM in New York when Korpikoski was a Ranger and targeted him in the 2009 trade. "Normally guys are agreeable, but he was fairly frank and pretty certain that he could do more and contribute more.

"When we traded Wolski, it was with the idea that guys like Korpi and (Mikkel) Boedker could step up and take on those roles. And when we needed to make another deal (Upshall) when Ed Jovonovski went down (with orbital bone surgery), we felt like Korpi was the guy who could play top-six minutes. Rozsival and Klesla have been huge upgrades for us and our offense hasn't suffered."

Korpikoski's nifty assist on Lee Stempniak's first-period goal in Thursday's 3-1 win in Edmonton helped extend Phoenix's winning streak to four games and their unbeaten run to six (5-0-1). The Coyotes will go for a perfect 4-0 road trip and attempt to sweep all six games in Western Canada this year when they face the conference-leading Canucks in Vancouver on Friday.

The man dubbed "The Korpedo" for his speed has six goals and 10 points in the last 14 games, joining Doan, Taylor Pyatt and Radim Vrbata in the Coyotes' "17-Goal Club" and one of 10 Phoenix players with at least 11 goals.

"You just feel good when he's on the ice," Maloney said. "Not only is he going to make good decisions and be responsible defensively, but he has the ability to make highlight-reel plays and put pressure on the opponent in their zone.

"Keith Yandle (the NHL's top scoring defenseman) has been our biggest breakout player this year, but Korpi is right behind him."

Phoenix coach Dave Tippett sat down with Korpikoski before the season and set a goal of 10 markers which has long-since needed revision. Even a broken bone in his foot that forced him to wear a walking cast for the last month and various other injuries that are an understood by-product of penalty killing hasn't slowed him down.

"He's a jack of all trades and he's had some great goals here lately that really shows what he's capable of," Tippett said. "He put in a bouncing puck (to force overtime against Vancouver) and beat two players out of the corner (to help beat Anaheim). And when he's on defense, his work ethic to beat people to pucks and get into shooting lanes is consistent."

Korpikoski also has great timing in other ways – he will be a restricted free agent at the end of the season. But he is very comfortable in the desert, especially now that he has a bigger role.

"We have a solid team and a great group of guys. It suits my style and we rely on everyone to do their share," he said. "It was a strange feeling to be traded the first time, but we have a great group of guys and I've had a great time living in Phoenix."
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