Few teams were happier to see the month of January come to a close than the Phoenix Coyotes. The 'Yotes started the new year with three wins in the first month, in addition to falling in overtime on four occasions and dropping contests with the Columbus Blue Jackets, last place in the West, and twice with the Anaheim Ducks, 13th at the time.
On February 1, the Coyotes sat twelfth in the West, fourth in the Pacific, and ten points behind the division's first-place San Jose Sharks.
Looking at the standings today, the Coyotes have made some changes.
Phoenix had the best February in the NHL, going 11-0-1, the only loss coming in a shootout on the road in Vancouver. Thursday night's loss in Calgary ended a six-game winning streak for Phoenix and marked their first regulation loss since January 31st.
Heading into tonight's match-up with the Blue Jackets, the Coyotes sit third in the West and two points clear of the Sharks, who have a game in hand.
Highlighting the February run was goaltender Mike Smith, 11-0 in February with a GAA of 1.42 and a save percentage of.952. Smith is having a brilliant first season in Phoenix, ranking fifth in wins, seventh in save percentage, and tenth in GAA to resurrect a career that was in jeopardy only a year ago.
Smith, a fifth-round pick of the Dallas Stars in 2001, was shipped to Tampa Bay in the deal that sent Brad Richards to Dallas and was believed to be the future in goal for the Lightning. Smith was a major disappointment in Tampa, going 43-52-17 in four seasons there before a knee injury and the arrival of Dwayne Roloson forced him out of Tampa Bay and onto the Norfolk Admirals of the AHL.
But after the departure of Ilya Bryzgalov in the off-season, Coyotes' Coach Dave Tippet, who coached Smith in his early days in Dallas, brought Smith to Phoenix for another shot to fill what appeared to be the Coyotes' most gaping hole.
It's made all the difference in the world.
With a goal differential of plus-8 and the third-least productive offense amongst playoff teams behind ahead of only Florida and St. Louis, goaltending has been and will need to continue to be a major factor in Phoenix's success.
In terms of scoring, the Coyotes have followed the lead of Ray Whitney, who stayed in the desert despite numerous trade rumors leading up to last week's deadline. Whitney leads Phoenix with 58 points this season. Whitney scored in eleven of the Coyotes' twelve games in February, totalling 15 points in that stretch. He's scored goals in three of his last four.
Radim Vrbata leads the team in goal-scoring, seventh in the NHL, and is currently enjoying his first 30-goal campaign.
Keith Yandle has also come alive with points in seven of his last eight. Yandle's 37 points this year places him ninth among defenseman in the NHL, following last years break-out 59 point season.
As the potential sale of the team grows near, although we've had that discussion every spring for what feels like a decade, and the Coyotes seek long-term stability in Glendale, the fans of Arizona still seem slow to notice. Phoenix remains last in average attendance at just over 12,00 according to ESPN.com. On nights when the Red Wings or Canucks are in town, it can at times be difficult to tell who truly has home-ice advantage.
A winning playoff team coupled with the stabilization in ownership could turn those tides, and those two scenarios could cetainly be fulfilled this year.
The 'Yotes will play the Sharks three times this month, twice at home, to expand their division lead. The schedule doesn't get any easier, as the Coyotes host the Predators and surging Ducks this month, travel to face the Stars and Canucks, and will play the Blues twice more. But the schedule will give them more than enough opportunities to pick up points with five games against the Blue Jackets, Wild, and Oilers.
As in the past two years, the Coyotes are clicking at the perfect time of year. If they can win two of their three meetings with San Jose, Phoenix may be able to lock up their first division title ever and position themselves for their first playoff series win since 1987, when they were the original Winnipeg Jets.
More importantly, could this be the year Paul Bissonnette scores his first career playoff goal? Only time will tell, but Twitter certainly hopes so.
Regardless, there's a lot to be excited about for a third straight spring in the desert, and it is once again time to take notice.