Wait a second, the Phoenix Coyotes entered play on Saturday night fourth in the Western Conference? Am I reading the standing correctly? The only team ahead of them in the Pacific Division is the San Jose Sharks? There has to be an error somewhere.
All kidding aside, the Coyotes are certainly one of, if not the biggest surprises in the NHL this season. They currently have 63 points, and are looking more and more like a lock for the postseason for the first time since the 2001-02 season. And they're doing it without Wayne Gretzky at the helm.
Right before the season began, Gretzky announced he was stepping down as the head coach of the Coyotes. The team chose Dave Tippett to be his replacement, and somehow, it has turned out to be the right move.
But this is a team that, just two weeks ago, managed to be shorthanded for seven and a half minutes, as a result of a five-minute major penalty. On Jan. 9, defenseman Ed Jovanovski, got assessed a major penalty for elbowing New York Islanders' young phenom Jon Tavares. He was also given a game misconduct, and was subsequently suspended for two games. The infractions occurred at 19:43 of the first period.
When the second period began, Phoenix was of course still shorthanded, but the coaching staff admittedly forgot to place a player in the box to serve the penalty. So once the penalty expired, no player emerged onto the ice—and no player was permitted to do so until play was stopped. That didn't happen until 7:35 of the second period, when Martin Hanzal was assessed a two-minute slashing minor, making the Coyotes shorthanded...again!
So here's a team that forgot to put a player into the penalty box (which sounds to me like a team forgetting to put a goalie in net), and yet they've managed to build quite a lead over the Ducks, Stars, and Kings in the division. How is this possible?
This season, the team has managed to put together a nice mix of core veterans, and young up-and-comers, better than what they had put out in previous years. Their young guys are becoming more experienced, and the veterans they have out there are not quite passed their primes.
Guys like Matthew Lombardi, Robert Lang, Adrian Aucoin, Scottie Upshall, and Radim Vrbata, have blended nicely with Lauri Korpikoski, Hanzal, Peter Mueller, and Keith Yandle. Goaltender Ilya Bryzgalov has been remarkable in 2009-10 (more so in '09 than '10, but sparkling nonetheless).
If the season ended today, the Coyotes would be facing the Vancouver Canucks in the first round of the playoffs. The teams have so far split their season series, and it could be possible that this Cinderella team could make it all the way to the ball—just make sure it's home before midnight, or it could turn into a pumpkin!