99 reasons to smile

ROBERT TYCHKOWSKI

, Last Updated: 9:03 AM ET

Wayne Gretzky hasn't had a lot go his way in the last 18 months, so much of the hockey world is probably glad to see a little light shine on the Coyotes' backsides.

Except maybe Pacific Division powerhouses Anaheim and San Jose, two of the many teams Phoenix blindsided in its charge up the Western Conference standings.

Just a few short weeks ago they looked hopeless. Now Phoenix is kicking ashes all around the NHL.

"I'm not sure what it is, but they've played well lately," said Sharks forward Joe Thornton, who noticed a dramatic change in the Desert Dogs during that 8-0 licking they put on San Jose last week.

PLAYING THE SYSTEM

"Maybe they're buying into (Gretzky's) system - everybody is playing as a team over there. They have a lot of confidence."

The Coyotes, who just had their seven-game winning streak snapped by Detroit, swept a home and home with San Jose, shut out the Ducks (when they still had Chris Pronger, Francois Beauchemin and J.S. Giguere), thumped Dallas, shut out Carolina and are 8-1-1 in their last 10. They've vaulted from 14th in the West to four points out of a playoff spot.

"It's been a textbook turnaround in the sense that all of the errors have been addressed," said Coyotes general manager Mike Barnett, who can't say enough about the way Gretzky navigated his ship through those rough waters. "The coaches deserve a lot of credit."

Which they quickly deflect.

"The best players have stepped up. But with that, the team has played remarkably well as a group," Gretzky said after the seventh-straight win. "They deserve the accolades they're getting right now because they're playing well."

The messages haven't changed since October, but it helps when coaches don't have to hold strategy sessions in the infirmary. Phoenix began its season with the same optimism and hope everyone does, only to see it helped off the ice in the first two weeks.

"In the fourth game we lost Steve Reinprecht for three months, and two games later we lost Keith Ballard for seven weeks," said Barnett. "That set us back. Then we lost Mike Comrie for 16 games and Shane Doan for a dozen. Nick Boynton has been out seven weeks ..."

Nobody likes excuses, but in the new NHL, where veteran depth is out of everyone's price range, injuries can sink you in a hurry. Ask Anaheim or Toronto what it's like when a few key guys go down.

"It's hard enough to find the win column when you've got all your horses going," said Barnett. "Wayne had a period of about 15 days there where every second night another piece of the puzzle was going down with a serious injury. It made it hard. It was frustrating and very troubling."

Now, the Coyotes are almost back to full strength. And backup goalie Mikael Tellqvist, acquired from Toronto in late November, has made a world of difference. He's 7-3-2 since coming over, providing 39-year-old Curtis Joseph with desperately needed relief.

"The goalies we had in the No. 2 spot were struggling, so Curtis couldn't get any rest," said Barnett. "He would have to go in midway through games or play games he probably shouldn't be scheduled to play. It affected his ability to perform."

And Gretzky's ability to win.

"Very much so," said Barnett. "Having a healthy Curtis and a hungry Tellqvist has made a monumental difference to this team. They're playing with a little bit of a swagger now.

"Not to say they've accomplished anything - we're not out of it by any means. We dug ourselves a pretty big hole, but we can at least see the light at the top of that hole."

SERIOUS BUYERS?

Indeed. The Coyotes are back in the hunt, and, by moving Mike Comrie, they've freed up enough cap space (they're about $4 million under) to become serious buyers if they're still close at the deadline.

Gretzky says they can make the playoffs.

"Our team is more of a team right now than I've seen in a year and a half as the coach," he said. "You're not going to win every night, but at least the team is playing within the system now and guys care about each other. It's fun to be around."

For a change.


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