Tippett's Coyotes regaining last year's magic

By Dan Di Sciullo
NHL Editor

Dan Di Sciullo Philadelphia, PA (Sports Network) - If there's one thing we should have learned about Dave Tippett's Coyotes last season it was to never count them out.

Yet, all the good karma that built up during the Coyotes' shocking run to the postseason in 2009-10 had seemingly disappeared if you watched Phoenix play earlier this season.

The Coyotes had just four wins through the first 14 games of the 2010-11 season and were 0-5 in tilts that went past regulation during that same span. That trend is in stark contrast to 2009-10 when Phoenix won its first four games that reached the overtime period.

Winning close games is essential for a club like Phoenix. The Coyotes are not stacked with offensive firepower like so many of the NHL's top teams today, but Tippett has created an atmosphere where his team can succeed with strong team defense, timely scoring and sharp goaltending from Ilya Bryzgalov.

The head coach's formula seems to be working like a charm presently as the Coyotes recently won their seventh straight game. That winning streak has helped erase the poor start to the year and currently has Phoenix well- positioned for another run to the playoffs.

The Coyotes recently won their seventh straight game.
As a result of its hot streak, Phoenix, which is 7-0-2 since losing its last game in regulation on Nov. 5, has vaulted up the Pacific Division and Western Conference standings. The Coyotes, who are off until Saturday's home tilt against Anaheim, enter Wednesday's action one point ahead of Los Angeles for first place in the Pacific.

"I think the biggest factor is everybody is on board," said Tippett after his club's most recent victory. "We are a team in every sense of the word. Every night somebody different contributes. I think you have a team that has recognized how we have to play to be successful."

The numbers certainly support Tippett's assertion and it's become clear that under the current head coach, Phoenix has become greater than the sum of its parts. In fact, the Coyotes have received goals from 17 different players this season, and while Lee Stempniak leads the team with just seven markers, Phoenix boasts 13 skaters with three or more goals.

But, once again, the sad thing about the Coyotes playing well is that people in the Phoenix metropolitan area don't seem to care. The Coyotes are drawing an NHL-worst 10,164 fans per night, ending any delusions that last year's trip to the playoffs has folks in the Valley of Sun energized about professional hockey.

And it's hard to blame the lack of fan fervor on the slow start to the season. Phoenix drew over 17,000 fans for its home opener against Detroit, but less than a week later the Coyotes had just 6,700 in attendance for the team's second game at Jobing.com Arena.

More recently, there was Tuesday's home tilt against the Edmonton Oilers. Despite coming off a perfect three-game road trip and having won six straight overall, just 9,354 fans turned out for Phoenix's 5-0 drubbing of the Oilers.

Combine this year's poor showing at the box office with a dead-last finish in attendance in 2009-10 -- even though the club made the playoffs for the first time in eight years -- and the case to keep the Coyotes in Phoenix is getting weaker with every home game.

It's obviously a sad state of affairs when the Coyotes even get outdrawn by the lowly New York Islanders, a team that hasn't won since mid-October but is still luring nearly 1,000 more fans to the arena every night. And the Isles don't even have the benefit of playing in a newer building like Jobing.com Arena, which opened during the 2003-04 season. Instead, New York plays at the 38-year old Nassau Coliseum, an arena that hockey fans have mockingly nicknamed "The Mausoleum".

Still, NHL commissioner Gary Bettman and the league, which still owns the Coyotes after rescuing the team from bankruptcy, seem no closer to admitting that hockey in the desert is simply not working. The NHL is still ignoring offers from prospective ownership groups that want to move the franchise to another city, but it seems increasingly likely that if the team is to be sold then at some point the league will have to admit defeat and let the team be relocated.

But, the lack of a viable hockey market in the Phoenix area certainly isn't the fault of Tippett or his Coyote players. You get the idea that they'd keep trying to grind out wins even if there wasn't a single fan in the stands to cheer them along.

As depressing as it is to see a good team go unwatched in its own building, you have to admire the Coyotes for their grit and determination under difficult circumstances. But if winning can't solve the team's current business problems, there doesn't seem much hope for the future of hockey in Phoenix.

Comments? Criticism? Applause? Contact Dan Di Sciullo at ddisciullo@sportsnetwork.com.

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