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(Ross D. Franklin)
(Ross D. Franklin)

Stempniak rises from ashes in Phoenix Add to ...

Far from the draft lottery or the still-smouldering embers of a lost Toronto Maple Leafs season, Lee Stempniak prepares for his first NHL playoff action, and thinks about possibilities.

What went wrong in Toronto? What went right in Phoenix? And how do you explain being in the right place at the right time when the concept can be so ephemeral? It could just be the chemistry he developed with his new running mates, Taylor Pyatt and Vernon Fiddler, two other players who've found a home in the desert.

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Or maybe something simpler.

"I was coming to a really good team," said Stempniak, as his new team, the Phoenix Coyotes, open their Western Conference quarter-final series tonight against the Detroit Red Wings. "It's always easier to play well and have individual success on a good team. It was one of those things, I was getting chances in Toronto. They just weren't going in. I feel like I played pretty well.

"Coming here, I just wanted to do things that were important in me having success -- skating, getting shots, going to the right areas and being a solid two-way player. I've been getting chances - and they've been going in."

Stempniak's acquisition by the playoff-bound Coyotes was originally seen as a shrewd move by Leafs general manager Brian Burke, because he was able to shed a contract that didn't fit into his master rebuilding plan. For Phoenix, however, his acquisition was nothing short of a godsend. The Coyotes were 30th and dead last in the NHL's power-play rankings - and no amount of hard work or paying attention to coach Dave Tippett's system could compensate for the absence of a player with a scoring touch.

In 18 games with the Coyotes, Stempniak produced 14 goals - matching his output with the Leafs in 62 games. With the Leafs, playing more of a defensive role, Stempniak was a minus-10. In Phoenix, he turned that around and was plus-10.

"Did we think he would be able to score goals at the rate he has?" Coyotes general manager Don Maloney asked? "No. I mean, let's face it. We got a hot hand at the right time. But we had seen Lee a couple of years ago in St. Louis and he was a really good player. For whatever reason, it didn't happen for him in Toronto.

"He's a quiet, unassuming guy with good hockey sense and we thought he'd fit in well with our group. There are no stars here. It's just a bunch of guys who compete hard."

For tonight's opener, the financially-challenged Coyotes expect a sellout crowd, according to team president Doug Moss, who said tickets were selling briskly even before they drew the Red Wings, a team with a loyal following in Arizona. The Coyotes plan another White Out - which dates back to the franchise's Winnipeg origins, in which spectators are issued white-coloured T-shirts as they enter the arena - and it will be interesting to see how many dabs of Detroit red will dot the anticipated blizzard of white.

"I'm not sure what the ratio is going to be here," said Maloney, "but I'm sure it'll make for a lively crowd."

The energy level is palpable across the organization. For last October's home opener, Tyson Nash, the team's colourful colour analyst, wore a white tuxedo - and looked for all the world like the miniature bridegroom atop a wedding cake. Nash plans to deck himself out that way again.

The challenge, for the players, will be to channel that energy properly. The Red Wings are opening on the road for the first time since 1991, but they go into the series as the odds-on favourite because of their vastly superior playoff history.

"They're a really good team, with a lot of experience and it's going to be a hard-fought series," Stempniak predicted. "But we're a really good team, too. We need to do all the things we've done to be successful - fight hard for every loose puck and for every goal, and then you win."

Follow on Twitter: @eduhatschek

 

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