Young players help Coyotes in playoff hunt

Mar 15, 2011, 1:22 AM | Updated: 1:32 am

GLENDALE –Despite having to compete minus several core players the past few games, the Coyotes continue to steam toward the Stanley Cup Playoffs.

“We’ve got a group that plays hard and injuries are part of what happens,” Head Coach Dave Tippett recently said about trying to stay in the postseason race without center Martin Hanzal and defensemen Ed Jovanovski and Rostislav Klesla in the lineup. “It’s unfortunate.”

Fortunately, two young, unsung players looking to establish themselves in the NHL are stepping up for Phoenix as it attempts to qualify for the playoffs. The Coyotes enter the week in fifth place in the Western Conference standings with 12 games to go.

Forward Lauri Korpikoski, 24, entered 2010-11 focused on making it his breakthrough season in the NHL. That’s precisely what he’s doing.

Korpikoski, who entered the season with just 11 goals on his NHL resume, already has scored a team-high 17 this season. He also has notched a career-high 17 assists and is a plus-14. Simply put, Korpikoski quietly has become one of the team’s more versatile and reliable players.

“What he’s done is build himself into a very good NHL player,” Tippett said after Korpikoski scored two crafty goals during Phoenix’s 5-2 win at Anaheim on Sunday. “He’s combined a strong work ethic with a knowledge of the game.”

Korpikoski’s recent numbers – six goals in the past 12 games – are even more impressive considering he’s not been 100 percent healthy since blocking a slap shot by Atlanta’s Dustin Byfuglien on Feb. 17.

Tippett utilizes Korpikoski in multiple ways. He is used to kill penalties. He plays on the power play. He skates as a winger. He fills in at center when needed. He is asked to take shots in shootouts. The list goes on.

“It’s nice to play a lot,” said Korpikoski, who has averaged about 22 minutes per game the past three games. “I like the responsibility and I’ve just got to keep going the same way and produce some offense, too. With Marty (Hanzal) out we need more guys getting goals. Hopefully, I can be one of them.”

Meanwhile, the Coyotes have been pleasantly surprised with the way defenseman David Schlemko, 23, has performed since returning from a concussion he suffered after San Jose’s Scott Nichol delivered a forearm to his head in a game played Jan. 17.

Schlemko, who was scratched 20 times in 45 games before the injury, used the downtime during his recovery to contemplate his season and where he wanted to take it.

“It was a little bit of a frustrating time for me before the injury,” Schlemko said. “I was in and out of the lineup. I had a couple little, nagging injuries during that stretch, but I knew I wasn’t playing my best hockey. I kind of had myself where I was dug into a hole where I couldn’t get out or I wasn’t getting the opportunity to get out, so I had a lot of time to sit back and think about things… I just wanted to come back and look at it as a fresh start and just kind of go out and leave it all out on the table.”

Schlemko has done that and his stats show it. In nine games since his return, Schlemko has contributed three goals and two assists, and has been a plus-4. His ice time has increased dramatically; on Sunday, he played a season-high 22:07.

With Jovanovski on the injured-reserve list for at least a few more weeks, Schlemko knows the opportunity is there for him to prove he can contribute during crunch time.

“You’ve got to be opportunistic and you have to thrive in those situations,” Schlemko said. “You’ve got to want to be part of those situations. This is the fun time of the year, coming down the stretch, and every game means a lot. You’ve got to want to be on the ice and want to make that play that makes a difference.”

Schlemko made those remarks before Sunday’s game, in which he scored a key goal to help secure the win over Anaheim.

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