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Phoenix Coyotes left winger Wojtek Wolski, right, of Poland, is congratulated by teammate Shane Doan after Wolski scored the go-ahead goal against the Colorado Avalanche with 22 seconds left in the third period of an NHL hockey game Thursday, March 4, 2010, in Glendale, Ariz. The Coyotes just acquired Wolski from Colorado. The Coyotes won 3-1. (AP Photo/Paul Connors) (Paul Connors)
Phoenix Coyotes left winger Wojtek Wolski, right, of Poland, is congratulated by teammate Shane Doan after Wolski scored the go-ahead goal against the Colorado Avalanche with 22 seconds left in the third period of an NHL hockey game Thursday, March 4, 2010, in Glendale, Ariz. The Coyotes just acquired Wolski from Colorado. The Coyotes won 3-1. (AP Photo/Paul Connors) (Paul Connors)

Eric Duhatschek

Wayward Coyotes blaze a path to playoffs Add to ...

There is a delicious irony behind the Phoenix Coyotes' unexpectedly successful 2009-10 season that can be traced to the NHL's decision to assume control of the franchise rather than let it possibly pass into the hands of Jim Balsillie last September.

The Coyotes are still, on an interim basis, owned by their 29 NHL contemporaries, after the league took control of the team's operations coming out of U.S. bankruptcy court in Arizona. But instead of conveniently and meekly falling by the wayside as so many suspected they would, the Coyotes (39-22-5) are in the thick of the playoff race, routinely defeating teams with higher payrolls and higher-profile players.

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Nor did the NHL do their primary chattel any favours in terms of scheduling this season. After today's home date with the Vancouver Canucks, Phoenix plays 13 of its final 17 games on the road - unimaginably bad timing, given interest in the Coyotes is just starting to pick up.

"But that's okay," said Shane Doan, the Coyotes' irrepressible and long-serving captain. "We want to stay as far below the radar as possible. Everyone keeps talking about how bad it is in Phoenix and nobody's even noticed that we're keeping up. The other day, we were fourth overall in the NHL. I'm sure not a lot of people would put us fourth overall if they looked at the standings."

No, they probably wouldn't. With 83 points, the Coyotes entered last night's games fifth overall - one point behind the Stanley Cup defending champion Pittsburgh Penguins.

It has been an extraordinarily successful season on the ice considering all the turmoil back in September, when hockey legend Wayne Gretzky resigned as head coach and Dave Tippett joined the team as his replacement with training camp already under way. That the Coyotes have a chance to end an eight-year playoff drought can be attributed in equal parts to goaltending and coaching.

"What makes us good is that we think we're not bad as a group," Doan said. "We don't have that superstar, but we've got seven or eight guys that can get you 20 goals - and those seven or eight guys all play between 13 and 18 minutes [a game]

"We might get beat every now and then because some teams just have more talent, but we're going to challenge you and make you beat us - and if you're good that night, you might have a chance."

For Tippett, joining the team on the fly meant he had to quickly diagnose the talent at his disposal and formulate a plan as to how the group could be successful.

"The one thing that needed to happen was, expectations needed to rise," Tippett said. "To me, it's hard to raise expectations just by talking about it. You've got to do it. We played some really good games against good teams early. We went into Pittsburgh and shut them out. We shut out San Jose in San Jose.

"Some of those games really solidified our identity and how we had to play to be successful."

Phoenix even turned into a buyer at this year's trade deadline. Newly acquired winger Wojtek Wolski fills the void caused by Scottie Upshall's injury absence, and Derek Morris adds depth to a blueline that has relied mostly on six NHLers all season.

"We've been pretty frugal throughout the year," Tippett said of a team that carried 21 skaters, two short of a full roster, to save room in the budget for a push at the deadline.

"The thing I liked about it: We were able to add five players, lost one, and the highest draft pick we gave up was a fourth-rounder. So we were able to add depth and fill some positions without giving up any top assets away other than Peter Mueller - and Mueller for Wolski seemed like a logical thing for us to do because we thought Wolski was a little further along in his development.

"Donny [Maloney, the team's general manager]really felt that he wanted to send the team a strong message - that the work the guys put in has been noticed. And we wanted to give ourselves the best chance to be successful."

Follow on Twitter: @eduhatschek

 

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