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The Desert Under Dogs and Their Quest to The NHL Playoffs

Yes, they've got their share of problems, but, for the first time in ages, competing isn't one of them.

In the midst of an eight-game winning streak dating back to the trade deadline (when they were buyers and not sellers, again, for the first time in ages), the Phoenix Coyotes have beaten the likes of the Colorado Avalanche, the Vancouver Canucks, and, most recently, the Chicago Blackhawks.

A few months ago, I predicted that the Blackhawks would win the Stanley Cup, and I maintain my belief that they will overcome their shortcomings in net to win it all. However, the Coyotes have to be considered a contender, for the simple reason that they have no shortcomings at all. They are currently second in the Pacific Division, behind only the San Jose Sharks, but San Jose's lead has dwindled in the recent past and now only two points and one game in hand separate the Coyotes from a potential regular-season conference title, that and one of the most inspirational sports stories ever told.

Indeed, management has assembled some of the most overachieving, under-appreciated, and, quite fittingly, underdog players currently in the league to make up this edition of the Coyotes. The result: an actual team that has depth like you wouldn't believe, a team that can play any other in the league and stand a chance at winning on any given night. If that doesn't give them a chance to win it all this year, I don't know what does.

In net, they have the ultimate cast-off in Ilya Bryzgalov, who, once upon a time, was picked up off waivers from the Anaheim Ducks. What has Bryzgalov done this year? Accomplished nothing short of greatness and justified placing his name aside those of the elite netminders currently in the game. He leads the league in wins with 39 and shutouts with eight.

Up front, aside from team captain Shane Doan, they have a huge stable of forwards, who, just like Bryzgalov, couldn't make it with their former teams either: Matthew Lombardi (Calgary Flames), Wojtek Wolski (Colorado Avalanche), Radim Vrbata (Tampa Bay Lightning), Robert Lang (Montreal Canadiens), Taylor Pyatt (Vancouver Canucks), Petr Prucha (New York Rangers), and Lee Stempniak (Toronto Maple Leafs).

On the blue line, the Coyotes have got no fewer than six defensemen who are capable of competently quarterbacking a power-play unit in Adrian Aucoin, Ed Jovanovski, Sami Lepisto (at least maybe in a few years), Derek Morris, Mathieu Schneider, and Keith Yandle, who, despite being just 23 years old, leads all defensemen on the team in scoring with 34 points.

Meanwhile, the team also has the defensive presence of Jim Vandermeer, Zbynek Michalek, and the sidelined Kurt Sauer on the backend to compliment its current offensive focus.

Each player named has excelled in their roles with the Coyotes, and this fact is personified best by Stempniak, who, following two uneventful years in Toronto, has resurrected his career over the course of just eight games in Phoenix, scoring nine times, adding two assists, and posting a +/- rating of 9. In Toronto this year, he had 14 goals, 16 assists, and a -10 rating in 62 games.

Now, no one is saying that Stempniak is now a superstar, that Wolski, with 54 points, possesses the leadership, wherewithal, or poise to lead a team in scoring anywhere else, or that Yandle is necessarily the second coming of Hall-of-Famer Brian Leetch.

What I am saying is that together the team is much better than the sum of its individual parts would indicate. And that's got to count for something. Maybe not a Stanley Cup, but maybe an eventual ticket out of the desert, hell… even an actual owner that would keep them in Phoenix? Between a Stanley Cup or a solidified ownership situation, I'm sure the players would take either or, and, right now, both look pretty possible with the way the team is playing. Like the sun that seems to characterize Arizona, the future of the team is pretty bright no matter how you look at it.