Tuesday, February 16, 2010

On the NHL: Coyotes and Kings go from afterthoughts to playoff hopefuls

By Michael Rushton,

Philadelphia, PA - The great thing about sports is that despite how much people like to dissect and overanalyze them, it is impossible to predict everything.

For example, if someone had told you before the season that both the Phoenix Coyotes and Los Angeles Kings would head into the Olympic break as serious, legitimate playoff contenders, you probably would have had a hard time taking that person seriously. These are two clubs, after all, that haven't finished above fourth place in the Pacific Division since the lockout, and neither has appeared in the playoffs since 2001-02.

Yet here we are, with the Coyotes fourth overall in the Western Conference with 79 points, a mere point ahead of the Kings in the standings. So much for predictions.

Phoenix's emergence as a team that has gone from bankruptcy to playoff possibility is the biggest and most pleasant surprise the season has offered. While the NHL was busy doing its best to keep the club in the desert, eventually purchasing the franchise itself so it could find an owner that would, the Coyotes have put together a squad that features a solid mix of veterans and young guns that wins with defense.

Ryan Smyth has helped the Kings become playoff contenders.
The formula that Phoenix is following is one that could lead to a successful postseason run. For the troubles the club sometimes has on offense, it still manages to win the close contests and is seventh in the league with just 2.44 goals allowed per game.

The cherry on top? The Coyotes are 22-9-2 at Jobing.com Arena this season, one of the top home marks in the league. Take that Ontario.

Phoenix's objective over the Olympic break should be finding a way to add some firepower to the offense, especially since 18-goal scorer Scottie Upshall went down with a torn ACL in his right knee in late January.

"We've got a lot of points out here by not scoring much here lately, which is a credit to our goaltending and the way we defend as a group but at some point you've got to have some people on the offensive side chip in," said Phoenix head coach Dave Tippett after the Coyotes' 3-0 loss on Saturday in their final game prior to the break.

Still, few could have predicted the season Phoenix has produced so far. Certainly not former head coach Wayne Gretzky, who stepped down from his role prior to the season because of the team's financial troubles.

Another of The Great One's former clubs, the Kings, have also made headlines this year. While its rise up the standings isn't as shocking as defensive- minded Phoenix, Los Angeles is still poised to end a six-year playoff drought and has taken to lighting the lamp at a rapid pace. After averaging just 2.46 goals per game last season, Los Angeles has upped that total to 2.90 in 2009-10.

Certainly the offseason acquisition of Ryan Smyth has helped, as the forward has 19 goals and 38 points in 46 games despite missing time with an upper-body injury. The 33-year-old veteran has also sparked fourth-year center Anze Kopitar, who with 28 goals in 61 games is already just four tallies shy of matching his career high set in 2007-08.

Mix in 45 points in 61 games from defenseman and 2008 second-overall pick Drew Doughty, and a league-leading 35 wins out of goaltender and U.S. Olympian Jonathan Quick, and the Kings' success this year shouldn't come as too big of a surprise.

"The team has done a great job of maturing and coming together," Quick told his team's Web site after a 3-0 victory on Saturday. "Right from the summer, we put a big emphasis on gelling together as a team and coming together as a team, and I think it has really showed this year, so far. We've played some great hockey."

Guess not everybody is surprised by what the Kings have done this season.


Heading into the season, there wasn't much that Pittsburgh Penguins star center Sidney Crosby hadn't already accomplished.

The 22-year-old, who will serve as an alternate captain for Team Canada in the Olympics, led his club to a Stanley Cup championship last year and has already captured both a Hart and Art Ross Trophy in his career. Yet, the new face of the NHL still found a milestone to hit for the first time this season.

Crosby goes into the Olympic break tied with Washington Capitals forward Alex Ovechkin for the most goals in the league with 42. Owner of 301 assists in his four-plus NHL seasons, it marks the first time Crosby has reached 40 goals in the NHL.

"I'm obviously happy," said Crosby after reaching the 40-goal mark on Friday versus the Rangers with a pair of markers. "I want to put pucks in the net, that's part of my role. I am definitely happy I have been scoring."

Crosby, third in the NHL with 78 points, surpassed his previous career-high of 39 goals scored as a rookie in 2005-06, and has already shown a slick ability to set up his teammates for goals. If he can keep up this scoring pace he is well on his way to becoming the complete player the league hoped he would turn into when he was taken first overall by the Penguins in 2005.

In fact, he might already be there.

It is also worth mentioning that Ovechkin, considered Crosby's rival by many, has posted 47 assists on the season, seven shy of his career high set twice before, including last year.

Let the rivalry continue.


One thing that never comes as a surprise is the Detroit Red Wings making the playoffs. However, that run is in some jeopardy this season.

Detroit's run of eight straight Central Division titles is likely to end, as it currently trails first-place Chicago by 19 points, and what is more surprising is that the Red Wings hit the break tied for ninth in the West, one point behind the eighth seed. That means that if the season ended now, Detroit would miss the playoffs for the first time in 19 seasons.

The Red Wings haven't missed the postseason since 1989-90, winning four championships over its 18-season run that is the longest active playoff streak in U.S. professional sports.

So what is wrong with Detroit, which won its most recent title as early as 2008?

It started in the offseason when the salary cap put a crunch on Motown. Detroit lost a handful of players from last year's squad, including Marian Hossa (71 points in 2008-29), Mikael Samuelsson (40 points) and Tomas Kopecky (19 points) to free agency, as well as Jiri Hudler (57 points) to Russia and the KHL.

Still a talented bunch, the Red Wings also haven't been able to stay healthy. They have lost over 280 man games to injury this season, with the likes of Dan Cleary, Jason Williams, Henrik Zetterberg, Johan Franzen, Tomas Holmstrom, Valtteri Filppula and Andreas Lilja all missing time.

The club is starting to get healthy now, though. Only Lilja remains on injured reserve (due to post-concussion syndrome), while Holmstrom has a troublesome knee that will cause him to miss the Winter Olympics for Sweden.

But, with Zetterberg, Pavel Datsyuk and Nicklas Lidstrom all healthy and in the mix, let us not count out the Red Wings just yet.

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