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Coyotes eye playoff spot ... and more

Hockey Primetime Andrew Knoll
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LOS ANGELES

The Phoenix Coyotes are a financially struggling team with impending free agents who make them certain sellers. That seems to be the impression in the East.

The reality is the West is that the Coyotes are the hottest team in February and have tied for first place in the Pacific Division.

They won six straight games to start the month and have earned 17 of a possible 18 points in February. The Coyotes have had a win streak of five or more games after the All-Star break in each of their past three campaigns, earning berths in the past two postseasons.

“We’re finding ways to win, and we’re doing it the right way. That makes it feel that much better,” goalie Mike Smith said after his 1-0 shutout of the Kings in Los Angeles last Thursday.

Smith has been an enormous part of the Coyotes' surge, posting an 8-0-0 record with two shutouts in February.

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Once doubted by some as a legitimate No. 1 goaltender, Smith has posted numbers that are better than those of Ilya Bryzgalov last season in Phoenix and much stingier than what Bryzgalov has posted in Philadelphia this year.

"You can't really put into words how good (Smith) is right now," captain Shane Doan told the Arizona Republic after a 2-1 overtime win over Dallas on Saturday. "He's been phenomenal for a long time. We've been fortunate. There's a reason we're on a winning streak."

Doan, who has been with the Coyotes for 16 seasons, dating to when the team was the original Winnipeg Jets, is among their potential free agents. He has avoided discussing the deadline or the offseason, opting to concentrate on this campaign.

His point production has not been overwhelming, but Doan continues to be an excellent two-way forward who provides tremendous leadership.

In last week's physical win over the similarly-styled Kings, Doan sparked his club with a fight against LA captain Dustin Brown after Brown’s big hit knocked defenseman Rusty Klesla out of the game.

"That's what makes Shane, I think, the best captain in the league," Phoenix coach Dave Tippett said. "He's a guy that sticks up for his teammates, cares about his teammates.”

While Doan represents the team and another veteran who began his career in Winnipeg, Teemu Selanne, has stolen all the “ageless” ink in Anaheim, Ray Whitney quietly has outscored both players. Whitney, 39, leads Phoenix in scoring and is also a potential unrestricted free agent.

His line with Radim Vrbata and Martin Hanzal has provided consistent and timely production for the Coyotes.

They have contributed 37 points combined in the past 12 games. Whitney set up Vrbata for game-winners against Los Angeles and Dallas, two of the five division wins they have had during this point streak.

Vrbata has 30 goals this season, an impressive total for a player on a squad that thinks defense first at all times. More striking still are his 10 game-winning goals, nine game-winning assists and 21 goals on the road.

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For his own part, Vrbata constantly defers to his teammates and focuses on his contribution to the larger effort.

"That's who he is, and that's what makes him a great person and a great player, and he fits very well with our team," Tippett told the Republic. "He's concerned about how our group does, not how he does personally. He's been a great fit for us here. It's not just his play, he's a quiet leader in that dressing room and very well respected."

Having had to surmount a number of injuries, particularly on defense, and bear the brunt of eight back-to-back sets in December and a road-heavy winter, the Coyotes now have designs on a playoff spot and, quite possibly, a division crown.

“Hopefully, we continue to improve," Tippett said. "Every game is a desperation game for us, which in the end makes you a better team."

Tagged: Kings, Lightning, Coyotes, Shane Doan, Ray Whitney, Radim Vrbata, Mike Smith

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