As the 2011 calender year drew to a close, the Coyotes were sort of just floating there in the Western Conference. They weren’t one of the bottom feeders in the West, but they weren’t really a serious contender either.
With so many questions surrounding the future of the franchise, the Coyotes were almost an afterthought. Trading Shane Doan was an actual possibility, with the team willing to send him on his way for a chance to win a Stanley Cup. They weren’t on anyone’s radar.
Fast forward to the end of February. The Coyotes did not lose a single game in regulation for the month, and now sit atop the Pacific Division.
This isn’t the first time the Coyotes have used a spring rally to jump into the middle of the playoff picture. In fact, this is pretty much becoming the norm for Phoenix. They’ve started slow the past couple of seasons and have used big winning streaks to grab people’s attention.
However, this year’s streak is the most impressive yet for Phoenix. Their win against Vancouver on Tuesday night was their sixth consecutive win. It gave them a record of 11-0-1 by the month, as they made the leap from out of the top eight, right to the top of the Pacific Division, good for third in the Western Conference.
Who would have thought a team with such little star power, and that lost Ilya Bryzgalov this past offseason, would be this high in the standings at the end of February?
Mike Smith has been a revelation for this team. He’s made Bryzgalov a complete afterthought and has played at as high a level as almost any goaltender in the National Hockey League. His 39 saves on Tuesday helped him get to 29 wins on the season, and gave him his 11th in a row.
But even while they might not be big names, don’t sleep on the guys playing in front of Smith either, even if he has been the driving force on the ice throughout the season for this team.
You have a guy like Ray Whitney, who leads the team with 57 points at 150 years old. Radim Vrbata‘s name has actually been mentioned in connection with the Hart Trophy, as loose an association as it might have been. His 30 goals are tied for fourth in the league.
Then you have a strong blue line, led by a blossoming star in Keith Yandle and another emerging one in Oliver Ekman-Larsson. This is a team with a defensive mentality and a wealth of defensive depth, and it shows on the ice every night.
The question still remains, is this the year the Coyotes put it together and make a serious run? After all, we’ve seen this act before.
But this year is a bit different. No one is really running away with any sort of division title or the Presidents Trophy, like we’ve seen in recent years. The Coyotes absolutely stand a chance of being a dangerous team come playoff time. With their “Hockey the Hard Way” mantra, they are going to be one of those teams you won’t want to play when the postseason rolls around.