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Surprised Coyotes prepare for pivotal stretch
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Surprised Coyotes prepare for pivotal stretch

PHOENIX – The Phoenix Coyotes have won their last five games to move into first place in the Pacific Division. How did they get there? The team has no idea.

Team captain Shane Doan told Sports 620 KTAR’s Gambo and Ash that he and his teammates are surprised that they are sitting in the No. 3 slot in the Western Conference. That’s the highest they’ve been in the standings since the team moved to Phoenix.

“It’s unbelievable, because if you talk to the guys, we don’t think we’ve been that good for this whole year,” Doan said. “There’s been stretches we’ve rattled off…but we need to get a little more consistent.”

The need for consistency now is especially important because of how tight the playoff race is currently. That’s what makes the team’s 6-game stretch over the next 11 days so crucial.

“You lose one game, you’re back to a seven or eight seed,” Doan said. “It’s unbelievable. We recognize how tight it is and how big this next game is for us and the fact that we can’t slow down. We’ve got to keep going.”

The Coyotes play the Thrashers tomorrow night at home, then head out on the road to face the Predators, Flyers, Lightning, Blue Jackets and Blackhawks.

Each of those teams has a winning record. Philadelphia and Tampa Bay sit atop the Eastern Conference, while Nashville is only one point behind Phoenix for the No. 3 seed.

While the team isn’t quite sure how they ended up so high in the standings, Doan said that there are some significant improvements that were made recently that have keyed their 5-game winning streak.

It all starts with goaltender Ilya Bryzgalov.

“The last two games that he’s played, he has been as good as I’ve ever seen him,” Doan said of Bryzgalov. “He was great against Chicago, and this last game against Washington he was as good as I’ve ever seen him. He was so aggressive. I mean, when he’s good, it looks easy, and he made it look so easy and he was so into the game mentally, it really showed.”

Bryzgalov is getting a lot of help from his teammates, who have been diving in front of the puck a lot lately.

“In order to be successful on the PK (penalty kill), you’ve got to block shots and we were able to do that,” Doan said. “It’s big. You look around our room, you see a guy like Vernon Fiddler or (Lauri) Korpikoski dropping down to block a big shot and it hurts. It hurts every time you get hit with a puck, and guys are doing it time after time after time. It energizes the whole group.”

Doan said that the offense has been carried by timely goals from various players. Doan pointed to Radim Vrbata, Lee Stempniak and Taylor Pyatt as teammates who have carried the team over its recent winning streak.

“It’s amazing how it goes in kind of waves,” Doan said. “As a team, we’ve kind of relied on it all year….It’s amazing how you get a guy going and you’ve got to ride with him.”