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Gretzky's Coyotes open chase for first playoff berth since 2002

But that's what Phoenix Coyotes coach Wayne Gretzky told his players as they prepared for their season opener against the New York Islanders Thursday night in Glendale Arena. Phoenix also plays host to Anaheim Saturday night before heading off on a four-game trip to Columbus, Detroit, Nashville and St. Louis.

Gretzky said the Coyotes need to establish a winning tone quickly as they pursue their first playoff berth since 2002.

"It's huge for us, it really is," Gretzky said. "I told our guys that it's amazing the kind of season the teams that get off to 8-2 and 9-1 starts (have). You just seem to roll along. You just seem to really get into sort of a groove. And then the mid-point of the season, you can have some key injuries and you can go through a tough couple of weeks and it still doesn't affect you. If you start 5-5 or 4-6, you're really just battling the whole season long."

As they open their 10th season in the desert, the Coyotes hope to avoid a repeat of last fall, when they opened 1-4-1 and didn't reach .500 until Nov. 8. Phoenix finished 38-39-5, 12th in the Western Conference.

Centre Jeremy Roenick called the first two games "must" wins.

"It's crucial, especially going on the road for a week and a half early in our campaign," said Roenick, who returns after four seasons in Philadelphia and Los Angeles. "We open up with two at home. It's a must that we win both."

The Coyotes also want to establish dominance in Glendale Arena, where they went 19-18-4 a year ago.

"Last year, I don't think there was too good a record in this building, and that's got to change this year if we intend to make the playoffs," Roenick said.

Looking to add a physical presence, the club acquired five veterans over the summer, led by three-time all-star defenceman Ed Jovanovski. The Coyotes also added forward Georges Laraque, one of the NHL's most feared enforcers, forward Owen Nolan and defenceman Nick Boynton, as well as Roenick, a nine-time all-star centre whose recklessness made him a fan favourite when he played for the Coyotes from 1996-2001.

The Coyotes hope the new approach will put them back in the playoffs after a four-year absence. But it may take time for the overhauled club to find its identity.

"We're not looking to creep up on anyone," Jovanovski said. "We've just got to go create our own identity and play well and let the wins hopefully do our talking for us."

The Coyotes' attack should get a boost with the return of left wing Ladislav Nagy, who scored 15 goals with 41 assists in 51 games last season before a knee injury sidelined him for the final 29 games.

The Coyotes will open the season without centre Mike Ricci, who has a neck injury. Right wing Fredrik Sjostrom will miss the first two games with a bruised left shoulder. Otherwise, the team finished the pre-season healthy. That means there's no excuse for a slow start.

"I really feel that we're a much better team than we were last year," Gretzky said. "This is going to be a hard team to play against now, not that we weren't last year. Our guys played their rear ends off every day for me.

"But this team's physically stronger, it's mentally stronger already," Gretzky said. "The defence is a tough defence to play against. It's a good group. It's a new culture around here, and it's spread through the team."



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