GLENDALE -- We're now 17 games into the Phoenix Coyotes' 2013-14 campaign. That means basically 20 percent of the regular season is complete and Dave Tippett's group finds itself a) in a relentlessly tough Pacific Division and b) with plenty of positives to build on going forward.
Here's a few of the encouraging signs we've seen so far...
They're Not Wasting Time:
For all the success the Coyotes have had in recent years, they haven't traditionally started strong out of the gate. In 2010-11, they finished with 99 points - the second-highest total in franchise history - yet began by winning just four of their first 14. A year later, they made a push to the Western Conference Finals, but not before dropping four of their first six.
Of course, the flip side is that they get better as the season unfolds. That's the hallmark of this club under Tippett's guidance, and it reflects their strong mental makeup as a group. It's also a trend that indicates they'll be playing their best hockey when the games matter most. There are areas they want to improve, yet they're still 11-4-2. What happens when they're firing on all cylinders?
They Can Win In Different Ways:
The core of the group that advanced through two playoff rounds 18 months ago is still in place, and now they have that experience to draw on together. As a result, the culture around this team - fostered by the coaching staff, the front office, the leadership in the locker room and the collective know-how to succeed in pivotal situations - is one where they never feel they're out of a game. Need proof? Look no farther than Oct. 24, when they rallied from down 4-0. In Los Angeles. Against Jonathan Quick. Or Halloween night, when they spotted Nashville a 3-0 lead, then surged back for a 5-4 shootout victory. They expect to win, even when it doesn't look good.
The goal, of course, is to avoid falling behind in the first place, but it's going to happen over the course of an 82-game season. And it's nice to know you can win in a high-scoring affair, a defensive battle, while holding onto a lead or when bouncing back late. And the fact that they've already experienced all these scenarios within just a couple weeks can only help them down the road.
The Pieces Fit:
Offseason moves forced Phoenix to rely on Antoine Vermette in the faceoff circle even more than before. His response? He leads the NHL in faceoff wins, while chipping in some timely offense as well. Meanwhile, newcomer Mike Ribeiro has been as good as advertised, jump-starting the offense with a 7-game point streak early on, and displaying the playmaking ability that puts his teammates in position to succeed. On top of that, Thomas Greiss has shown himself to be a reliable option in net when Mike Smith needs a night off.
The Offense Is Stronger:
Part of the reason they're never out of a game is the simple fact that the Coyotes can put the puck in the back of the net. Through 17 contests, the Desert Dogs rank No. 4 in the NHL with 53 goals. And they've done it with a balanced attack, getting plenty of help from the blue line as well - even the goalie has scored. They also boast a solid shootout lineup now, with Ribeiro, Radim Vrbata and Mikkel Boedker leading the way. This team is ultimately built to have success with a defense-first philosophy, but being able to score when needed sure doesn't hurt.
They Take Care of Business at Home:
Through eight games at Jobing.com Arena, the Coyotes are 7-0-1. And even that one defeat came in overtime as a result of Jason Spezza delivering a hat trick for Ottawa - not exactly something the road team can bank on. Defending your home ice is imperative in the NHL, and these guys realize that. Even on the nights when they don't have their best stuff, they're still tough to play against, and that's been one of their greatest strengths so far.
To have playoff success in this league, you have to respond. You have to take losses personally, and it has to drive you to do everything you can to make sure it doesn't happen again. The NHL is loaded with gifted players who know how to win, but to truly take it to the next level, you have to hate losing. Tippett and Shane Doan are pretty much the definition of that mindset, and it shows throughout the locker room. Ironically, the magical run to the 2012 Conference Finals started with an October wakeup call in San Jose. They learned from it, bounced back and were ultimately a better team for it. This year's first loss? A wakeup call in San Jose. And their ability to respond with a lengthy winning streak - starting in Detroit, of all places - has them in a good spot going forward.
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