- Scott Burnside, NHL
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Once upon a time, the script read like this.
Curtis Joseph would lead the Toronto Maple Leafs to a couple of Stanley Cups and then hand the goaltending chores over to trusty ward Mikael Tellqvist and wait patiently for the Hall of Fame to call while Tellqvist charted his own path to NHL glory.
Sometime during the summer of 2002, that dreamy script fell off the back of the Leafs' equipment cart and, for all we know, might well be a doorstop in Ken Dryden's parliamentary office in Ottawa.
But almost five years (and more than a little hardship) later, there is life again in that same script. The locale has changed with the desert sun standing in for the bustle of downtown Toronto. And while the principals remain the same, the plot has added depth as Tellqvist and Joseph have reunited to make the Coyotes the hottest team in the NHL heading into the final week before the All-Star break.
With a resounding 5-2 win in Dallas on Tuesday evening, the Coyotes completed an improbable sweep of a five-game road trip that also included wins in Washington, Carolina, Atlanta and Chicago. Phoenix is 8-1-1 in their last 10 games and has now leapt into 11th place in the Western Conference, just three points out of the eighth and final playoff spot.
"Mentally, we're a lot tougher than we were at the beginning of the year. When you start 3-10, it really takes a lot of hard work and a lot of time to really bounce back from that," Coyotes coach Wayne Gretzky said during the trip. "When we get into sort of a tailspin, it's really sometimes difficult to stop the tailspin. Conversely, when you get it turned around and things do start being much more positive, you can ride that wave, too."
If this is a wave, Joseph and Tellqvist are the board upon which the Coyotes are riding.
"Our goaltending's been tremendous," Gretzky said. "Tellqvist was a great pick-up for us and he's taken a lot of pressure off of Curtis and he's given Curtis a break, and when he's gone in, he's played exceptionally well. And when Curtis gets to play now, he's much more physically rested and mentally rested, and it's made for healthy competition and it's made us a better team."
Added GM Mike Barnett, who acquired Tellqvist on Nov. 28 for Tyson Nash and a fourth-round draft pick: "Obviously, you want to have two goalies your players completely believe in and we've got that now. And we're optimistic we may have found an important piece to our future."
It's more than a little ironic Barnett can use the term "future" alongside the names of his two netminders, especially given the way the season began for both of them.
For the first two months of this season, the future looked very much like the end for the 39-year-old Joseph, who is in his second season with the Coyotes. The Toronto-area native had left his dream job with the Leafs after the 2002 season and then spent two lamentable campaigns in Detroit that were disrupted by the return of Dominik Hasek after a brief retirement.
As for Tellqvist, he had failed to grab the elusive No. 1 job in Toronto despite several golden opportunities. The defining moment in Tellqvist's career as a Leaf came last March, when the Leafs, desperate to stay in the playoff hunt, played rival Montreal in back-to-back games. Tellqvist was shelled, giving up 11 goals on 59 shots.
The Leafs had little confidence Tellqvist could do the job and dropped him to third on the depth chart. Still, Toronto did not want to risk losing him via the waiver wire, so it kept Tellqvist with the big club and he worked out, stopped thousands of practice pucks and bided his time until something happened.
That something turned out to be the Phoenix Coyotes.
At the time the Coyotes acquired Tellqvist, they were treading water. Team defense had improved and key players returned from injury, but backup netminders David LeNeveu and Mike Morrison had flamed out in spectacular fashion.
"We were really desperate," Barnett told ESPN.com. "There were a lot of sleepless nights because, at Curtis' age, we were drastically overloading him."
After looking at former NHL netminders playing in the AHL (not good enough) and backups around the NHL (too expensive), Barnett woke up one morning and phoned Gretzky at 5 a.m. to tell him he'd decided to go with Tellqvist. By 9 a.m., the pride of Sundbyberg, Sweden, was a Coyote. Although no one knew it yet, a significant corner had been turned.
From the moment he landed in the desert, Tellqvist displayed a confidence that had been either lacking or smothered in Toronto. He defeated Nashville and Chicago in his first two starts. Suddenly, the Coyotes weren't holding their collective breaths every time a shot headed toward their net.
"I think it's great for everybody," defenseman Keith Ballard said. "They're both getting rest and they're both playing great. I know the guys feel great whether it's Telly or Cujo. We don't have to change our mind-set going into a game. There's enough things to worry about going into a game [other than who's playing net]."
Even though he clearly did not figure into the Leafs' plans, Tellqvist admitted the trade was still a shock. The notion of packing up and leaving close friends and teammates for a new organization, worrying that they would accept him, worrying that he would play well enough for that acceptance, all played into Tellqvist's thought process.
But one thing made the move easier was the presence of Joseph.
"One of the all-time bests in hockey, one of the all-time bests off the ice," Tellqvist said in a recent interview.
Does he see a certain symmetry to the proceedings?
"Yes, it was a bit surprising. It was me and him back then, and now it's me and him again," Tellqvist said.
Whether it's because he's out of the glare of the hockey spotlight in Toronto or because he has grown into the role, Tellqvist has been sensational. He is 7-2-2 as a Coyote with a 2.64 goals-against average and .914 save percentage. He is making timely saves, like the ones he made against Chicago last week when the Coyotes were out-shot 13-1 in the third and 34-17 overall, but held on for a 4-2 victory. Tuesday against Dallas, he turned aside 29 of 31 Stars' shots.
"He looks to me like a different goalie here," said former NHL netminder and longtime television analyst Darren Pang. "His movement is tighter. His lateral movement is as good as anything I've seen in the last month. He just does not get beat inside the post."
In other cities, this might be called a goaltending controversy. In Phoenix, it's called a competition between friends. It might sound like semantics, but whatever you call it, it's working.
"He's still a great guy. I was excited when I heard we were getting him," said Joseph, who passed Jacques Plante and moved into fifth on the all-time wins list with a victory over Carolina on this road trip. "He certainly came in and won people over."
At this stage of his career, Joseph is beyond worrying about losing his standing. He is all about the big picture.
"We have to worry about things like putting points on the board, the team, team chemistry, cheering for each other," Joseph said. "He adds a lot to our team."
And so, with Joseph closing in on his 40th birthday, the Coyotes might have found two things they couldn't have imagined when Tellqvist arrived -- a netminding tandem that would get them into the playoffs and a goalie for the future.
Hmm. Sounds like something we've read before.
Scott Burnside is the NHL writer for ESPN.com.