With all the off-the-ice issues Phoenix endured over the summer, it was looking like the Coyotes' 2009-10 season was going to be remembered for the wrong reasons.
As it turns out, it's shaping up to be pretty memorable for the team's play on the ice.
The surging Coyotes look to match a franchise record for wins in a single season with their sixth straight victory Tuesday night when they visit the Tampa Bay Lightning.
After filing for bankruptcy following a disappointing 2008-09 season, leaving the team's future in Arizona uncertain and Wayne Gretzky resigning as coach less than two weeks before the start of this season, Phoenix (42-22-5) seemed to be in complete disarray.
The Coyotes, however, have managed to put all those distractions behind them, and are poised to make their first playoff appearance since 2002.
Phoenix, which was tied for the Western Conference's second-worst record last season, is fourth in the West with 89 points, four ahead of Los Angeles in the race for home ice in the first round of the playoffs. The Coyotes surpassed last season's win total of 36 on Feb. 8 and are now one victory away from tying the franchise mark of 43 set by the Winnipeg Jets in 1984-85.
"It's been probably the funnest year I've had at the NHL level," backup goaltender Jason LaBarbera said after Sunday's 3-2 shootout win in Atlanta. "Everybody has contributed. Everybody on every night can contribute. And that's the best part. We're not relying on one or two or three guys."
LaBarbera stopped 39 shots as Phoenix won its fifth in a row and 13th in 17 games.
The Coyotes made an NHL-high seven deals at the trade deadline to bolster their playoff chances, and one of the players acquired earlier this month has keyed this winning streak.
Lee Stempniak, acquired from Toronto, scored his sixth goal in five games with Phoenix on Sunday.
"It's been a really good fit for me," he said. "It was a fresh start, leaving Toronto. These are easy guys to live with. We've developed some good chemistry."
Ilya Bryzgalov has also been instrumental to the winning streak, posting a 0.98 goals-against average and two shutouts in four games. He's expected to be back between the pipes in Tampa Bay. In his only career start against the Lightning on Jan. 8, 2009, Bryzgalov made 24 saves in a 3-2 win.
That victory marked the Coyotes' only win against Tampa Bay (28-28-12) in the last eight meetings. Phoenix, which lost to the Lightning 4-1 at home Nov. 16, has been outscored 14-6 in losing the last three in Tampa Bay since a 5-2 victory Feb. 13, 2001.
The Lightning are in a bit of a slide, but they're coming off a couple of strong performances against two of the league's top teams.
After beating NHL-leading Washington 3-2 on Friday, Tampa Bay gave up two third-period goals in Sunday's 2-1 loss to Pittsburgh. The Lighting lost for the eighth time in the last 10 games, and have fallen to 10th in the East after being in sixth place on Feb. 9.
"We got to keep going," captain Vincent Lecavalier said. "The way we're playing, if we keep going like that every game, I believe we can do this."
Lecavalier is leading Tampa Bay's offense with five goals in his last six games, and looks to continue this goal-scoring rush against one of his favorite West opponents. He had two goals and an assist against the Coyotes earlier this season and has eight goals and four assists in his last six games against them.