PHOENIX - Wandering around the Phoenix Coyotes' dressing room yesterday, in advance of tonight's playoff series opener against the Detroit Red Wings, it occurred to me how many of their key components are castoffs, many of them from Canadian-based NHL teams.
Two of their top-four defencemen, Adrian Aucoin and Derek Morris, were previously with the Calgary Flames, as was Jim Vandermeer, who played a lot of hockey for them this season, but starts as the seventh defenceman behind Mathieu Schneider. Schneider is an ex-Hab, who was with the Vancouver Canucks earlier this season - a marriage that didn't work out for either party. Taylor Pyatt was also with Vancouver last season - and according to GM Don Maloney, has been a force in the last month, playing with ex-Leaf Lee Stempniak and Vernon Fiddler on ... what? In theory, you'd call it the third line, but with the way Stempniak scored for the Coyotes down the stretch, it might be their top unit at the moment.
Fiddler is one of those underappreciated players who wasn't re-signed by the Nashville Predators. When Tippett talks about his core group - the ones that create the inner circle of leadership on the Coyotes - Fiddler's name is a notable inclusion on a list that usually also includes Shane Doan and ex-Canuck Ed Jovanovski.
What sets the Coyotes apart - and maybe gives them a chance against the Red Wings - is simply that they shouldn't be overwhelmed by playoff fear, just because so many of their players have logged a lot of NHL miles over the years.
The Red Wings are in the playoffs for the 19th consecutive season, the longest active streak of qualifying for the postseason among the major pro sports teams. The closest franchises are the New Jersey Devils and the NBA San Antonio Spurs (13 consecutive berths). With 102 points, the Red Wings extended their NHL record with a 10th consecutive 100-point season. This season will be the first since 1990-91 that the Red Wings open the playoffs without home-ice advantage.
It doesn't seem like much of a reward for the Coyotes, to get a team of this calibre after qualifying for the Stanley Cup Playoffs for the first time since 2002 and establishing franchise records with 50 victories and 107 points.
"If you would have looked back two months ago to when Detroit was struggling, it wouldn't have been as big a thing," said Aucoin, "but they're obviously playing well now and it doesn't seem quite as fair. But it kind of goes with our season - the team that no one thought would go anywhere, and now we're going against the hottest team in the league, with all that playoff experience, so we're right back in that same boat.
"For us, we're getting the real big test right away - and sometimes, that's kind of how you want it."
One of the more intriguing match-ups will be in goal, where the Coyotes' Ilya Bryzgalov, a Vezina Trophy candidate as top goaltender, against the Red Wings' Jimmy Howard, a Calder Trophy candidate as top rookie.
This past year, Howard became just the fourth goaltender in Red Wings' franchise history to post 30 wins in his rookie season. Howard started 25 consecutive games from Jan. 29 to Apr. 4, the longest streak by a Red Wings goaltender since Tim Cheveldae (29) in 1991-92 and tops by a Detroit rookie since Connie Dion (26) in 1943-44. Howard posted a 37-15-10 record, 2.26 goals-against average and .924 save percentage and enters tonight's game with a 15-0-2 record in his past 17 starts.
Bryzgalov, for his part, won 42 games to break his previous career-high of 28. His eight shutouts rank second to the nine by New Jersey's Martin Brodeur for the league lead. Bryzgalov, who represented Russia at the 2010 Winter Olympics, also ranked among the NHL's top 10 goaltenders in goals against average (2.29) and save percentage (.920), while playing a career-high 69 games.
Phoenix will need to get scoring by committee in order to win, given that they do not have a Pavel Datsyuk or a Henrik Zetterberg to lead them offensively.
"But that's our strength," said Aucoin. "Who are you going to shut down on our team? Besides Bryz playing the way he is, you've pretty much got six Dmen who can all do a little bit of everything. You've got four lines, who've all been chipping in a little bit offensively lately. And you've got four lines that can play against the top line of the other team.
"Obviously, we're going to try and draw the positives out of everything. Would we want a 110-point scorer on our team? Absolutely. But sometimes, you want to have those guys a little too much."