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Gambo: Coyotes starting to gain some attention

Not a bad year that we have going on for sports here in the Valley right now.

The Cardinals are headed back to the playoffs to defend their NFC Championship.

The Suns have been better than expected and coming off a huge win over the Lakers Monday night and appear to be a solid playoff team after missing the playoffs last season.

The mighty Mercury won the WNBA Championship.

And Mike Stoops has Arizona in the Holiday Bowl.

All great stories.

But no story may be bigger than what is going on in Glendale, Arizona right now on a sheet of ice that many felt would have melted by now.

And that is the Phoenix Coyotes, who are shocking the hockey world by winning with regularity.

The Coyotes are clearly the biggest surprise not just in the NHL but maybe in all of sports right now. The team was left for dead just a few months ago due to a bankruptcy filing, mounting financial losses, a league takeover, threats of relocation, lease issues and a coach who quit on his team.

And that doesn’t even begin to tell the story. The Coyotes in the Wayne Gretzky era were awful. The team failed to make the playoffs in any of his four seasons behind the bench and finished in fourth place twice and last place twice in the Pacific Division. Last season only three teams had fewer points than the Coyotes 79. Gretzky won just 143 of 328 games that he coached.

So entering this season with a roster completely shaken up over the last year by General Manger Don Maloney the Coyotes were projected to finish – drum roll please — dead last in the NHL by every major publication. Not a big surprise considering all their recent failures both on and off the ice. But something happened along the way. The Coyotes never felt sorry for themselves, never let the ownership distraction get them down. The organization hired its first real coach since Bobby Francis guided them to the playoffs in 2001-02 in Dave Tippett. And this group of misfits somehow, despite all odds, came together and have made arena a place to be.

On Saturday in front of a near capacity crowd the Coyotes defeated the Los Angeles Kings 3-2 in a thrilling non-stop action game that ended with the ‘Yotes killing off a 6-on-3 or the final 49 seconds. The win was the ‘Yotes 9th straight at home and ran their home record to a sensational 15-5. The team is 11 games over .500 and with its 50 points Phoenix is tied for the third best record in the Western Conference and just five points out of first place.

Just how the Coyotes have put together this string of success is anyone guess. It starts with good talent evaluation by Maloney, a great structured system by Tippett, a Captain in Shane Doan who leads on and off the ice and a team that just wants to win.

The biggest additions to the team have been low-cost free agents. Defenseman Adrian Aucoin, center Robert Lang, wingers Taylor Pyatt and Vernon Fiddler plus tough guy Paul Bissonnette have paid huge dividends. Trades for Scottie Upshall last season and James Vandermeer this season have been home-run deals. Upshall leads the team in goals with 13.

Combine those additions with great goaltending from Ilya Bryzgalov, who leads the NHL in shutouts with five, ranks fourth with a 2.02 goals against average and fifth in save percentage at .926 and you have the makings of a very good hockey team that is built to win with solid defense, great goaltending and timely scoring.

It has been seven years since Phoenix made the playoffs and while Doan will never allow the players in that locker room to get too far ahead of themselves, you have a feeling that this could be a special year. For now the Coyotes are exciting and that excitement comes mainly from finally winning. And with the style of play and on-ice success the ‘Yotes are having, we can finally say that the Coyotes are definitely worth the price of admission.