No one is laughing at the Phoenix Coyotes now.
On the second day of training camp in September, GM Don Maloney predicted he would be the butt of a few jokes around the NHL because he kept saying his team was bound for the playoffs.
Fast forward to mid-March and the Cinderella Coyotes have climbed to even higher heights than Maloney was anticipating. With 11 games left on the schedule, Phoenix is mounting a serious challenge for first overall in the Western Conference.
An impressive seven-game winning streak has virtually assured the team of its first playoff berth since 2002, but the man who built the Coyotes isn’t getting too excited just yet.
“I think we’ve really done a nice job not getting ahead of ourselves or too carried away,” Maloney said Friday. “The same people that were picking us 30th in the league are now the people who are saying this team can do something in the playoffs. That’s not our focus at all.
“We’re on a nice little streak here, but I think there’s still plenty of room for improvement.”
It’s amazing how far they’ve come already. The only real discussion about the team heading into the season centred around bankruptcy proceedings that dominated headlines over the summer and the departure of Wayne Gretzky as head coach.
Dave Tippett took over behind the bench and has helped transform a workmanlike group of players into a team that is battling with the Big Boys – sitting just three points back of conference leaders Chicago and San Jose entering play Friday.
The streaking Coyotes face their biggest test of the season with the Blackhawks visiting Saturday night. It will be just the second sellout crowd at Jobing.com Arena this season.
“There’s a buzz around the town, you can feel it,” said Maloney. “It’s encouraging. We know we still have a long way to go to get the kind of support that we need on a regular basis, but certainly it is promising.
“We can feel it, the players feel it. It’s exciting.”
There’s no mystery as to why Phoenix has experienced success this year – it has allowed a league-best 173 goals against thanks to No. 1 netminder Ilya Bryzgalov and a strong overall commitment to defensive hockey.
Maloney was the busiest GM at the recent trade deadline, bringing in Lee Stempniak and Wojtek Wolski to shore up his forward unit while also adding veteran defencemen Derek Morris and Mathieu Schneider.
The new acquisitions have made a “seamless” transition to their new team and the Coyotes haven’t lost a game since the deadline. Stempniak has made the biggest impact so far, recording seven goals and two assists in seven games.
“Lee Stempniak has been phenomenal,” said Maloney. “He’s given us some secondary scoring we didn’t have.”
Despite all the good vibes surrounding the Coyotes at the moment, the GM is somewhat wary. He doesn’t anyone getting too comfortable.
“All you have to do is take a quick peak over your shoulder and you see the great teams – Detroits and Calgarys and Nashvilles and L.A.,” said Maloney. “These are good hockey teams. You stumble at all and you’re right back in the middle of things.
“We can’t afford to ease off.”
The team’s uncertain ownership situation has placed a premium on winning games and trying to win back the trust of the fanbase.
Maloney thinks the team lost some momentum with fans during the recent Olympic break, but expects it to get going again now. He knows the franchise won’t be able to completely turn things around overnight.
“It takes time,” said Maloney. “It won’t be until next season before (we see results). We have to continue to do our job – we need to get to the playoffs, play hard in the playoffs and continue to build this thing. … You have to continue to create the excitement that people want.
“There’s five and a half million people in the Phoenix metropolitan area, it’s a great building, and we’re putting on a good show. I’m really optimistic of where we’re trending.”
Back in September, he was one of the few who believed it would happen. That belief is the main reason he’s not doing “backflips” now that a playoff spot is tantalizingly close.
“As we sit here today, it’s really been everything I expected and more,” said Maloney. “It’s been fun until now, but unfortunately they don’t award trophies March 19th. We still have lots of hockey to be played.”