- Scott Burnside, NHL
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PHOENIX -- Revisiting the Phoenix Coyotes is like returning to a building you last saw on the verge of completion. You imagined what the furnishings were going to look like; you imagined the possibilities, only to discover the building has been gutted.
Almost one-quarter of the way through the season, the Coyotes are in last place in the Pacific Division. So, we return not to chronicle their successes, but to see what might be salvaged.
As players, coaches, staff and media board the team bus at a Scottsdale, Ariz., resort heading to the team charter that is bound for Los Angeles International Airport, the Coyotes are coming off their first two-game winning streak of the season. On Tuesday, they came from behind to beat Northwest Division-leading Minnesota 4-3, and then Thursday night came from behind to beat Chicago in a shootout.
It is the first glimmer of light in an otherwise dark season.
"You know, we've been down a little bit. We were right at rock bottom as far as the hockey aspect of it," admitted defenseman Keith Ballard, one of a long list of Coyotes who has missed significant time (11 games) this season with injury (broken hand). "But we're making progress. As bad as this was, we're making progress. You look at the standings, we're not out of it."
The next two days will go a long way to proving Ballard right -- or wrong.
On Saturday, the 6-12 Coyotes will take their NHL-worst road record (two points) into a rare afternoon tilt against Los Angeles before busing to Anaheim, where they will play Pacific Division-leading Ducks on Sunday.
The road trip, brief as it is, will tell us much about the state of the Coyotes' house.
When a team has dug itself the kind of hole the Coyotes have dug, it must walk the razor's edge between taking too much or too little solace from minor achievements.
"We need to remember that it took a lot" to win those two games, Ballard said.
It seems like such a long time ago that the story of the possibility of this team's dream season was first discussed and rationalized.
After one year as head coach, Wayne Gretzky, along with good friend and general manager Mike Barnett, appeared to have addressed the team's most pressing problem, bolstering the blue line with the addition of Ed Jovanovski and Nick Boynton. With
Ballard and Zbynek Michalek maturing and hard-hitting veteran Derek Morris in the fold, this looked to be as good a defensive group as the team had ever assembled. The theory was that much-improved stability, mobility and physicality on the back end would make life easier for netminder Curtis Joseph. The offense was not going to be dynamic, but if the Coyotes could improve on last year's woeful 19-18-4 home record, a playoff berth wasn't out of the question.
Through October, almost none of this came to pass and the team stumbled to a 3-9 start.
Gretzky waited patiently, and then he waited impatiently, calling his players out and skating them until their legs ached. On Thursday night, Gretzky blew a gasket in the third period of the Chicago game, incurring a bench minor for unsportsmanlike conduct that gave the Blackhawks a 5-on-3 power play for two minutes. Joseph, showing he is back on track after a slow start, was sensational, and the NHL's 28th-ranked penalty-killing unit held fast to give the Coyotes a chance to win.
At the next day's practice, Gretzky treated his players with a rare chance to play alongside the greatest of all time as he took part in team drills before heading to Los Angeles.
Still, even with the thin shard of hope provided by the team's modest streak, the Coyotes' margin for error is slim. Without the services of three top forwards, Mike Comrie, Shane Doan and Steve Reinprecht (all lost for varying lengths of time to injury), the team must rely on defense, goaltending and discipline to win games.
"Our chances of scoring four goals a game in the long run are pretty small," acknowledged assistant coach Ulf Samuelsson, who was brought in over the offseason to help focus the efforts of the revamped Coyotes defense. "But if you can limit the other team to 15 or 16 scoring chances a night, then that's going to give us a chance to win."
Unfortunately for the Coyotes, their propensity for taking penalties has made keeping opponents away from their end of the ice almost impossible as they lead the league in average penalty minutes per game (21.7).
And so the Coyotes wing their way to Los Angeles, hoping their winning streak, as modest as it is, is representative of a corner turned, that it speaks of the good things that were imagined when this house was still under construction.
"It's barely a streak," Samuelsson conceded. "But there's a lot of pride in our room, and I think that's what's going to drive us."
Scott Burnside is the NHL writer for ESPN.com.
Heading into the new season, we thought the Coyotes were a team that could dream of the playoffs. A quarter into the season, Wayne Gretzky and Co. are struggling. Scott Burnside paid them a visit.