Sports Hockey

Phoenix a hockey oasis 0

ROBERT TYCHKOWSKI, QMI Agency
PHOENIX - 

Almost anyone who's ever been to Phoenix for a road game is hoping the Coyotes never leave here.

The warm desert air is a welcome respite for players, coaches, media and travelling fans alike. You see more Oilers sweaters here than in any other NHL city but Edmonton.

But with the future of the franchise still in doubt, nobody knows how long this good thing is going to last.

"Let's be honest, it's Phoenix," said Shawn Horcoff. "It's a place everybody enjoys coming to. Especially when you live in Edmonton, you can get a little bit of sun.

"But at the same time they have to find a way to put people in the building. They're a franchise that is struggling to do that and at the end of the day it's a business. The owners and the league are in it to make money and if you can't put fans in the stadium they're going to find places that will."

Not that Horcoff has ever been a proponent of moving teams.

"Whenever you do that there are fans (in that city) who are being hurt. Hopefully they can figure something out."

There were about 7,500 fans at Thursday's game.

EYES ON THE PRIZE

Oilers centre Eric Belanger spent a year with the Coyotes, right in the eye of the ownership storm, and says the players' ability to shut out the distractions was nothing short of remarkable.

"Every other week there was a new owner coming in, or there was a new city, or the team was moving," said Belanger. "But the guys dealt with it great. It just became part of the routine."

Keeping one's poise under the threat of moving from Phoenix to Winnipeg is not easy, but they did it.

"It's not easy because a lot of guys have a house here and they love playing here and they don't want to move," said Belanger, adding no matter how well you tune it out, the uncertainty is always in the back of your mind. "Everything is always up in the air, it's hard to sign guys to a long-term deal because the team doesn't know where it's going to go. It's not an easy situation."

TEUBERT BACK DOWN

With the return of Taylor Hall and Corey Potter, the Oilers cleared room on their roster by sending Colten Teubert down to Oklahoma City. That leaves them with just six defenceman, but the schedule is pretty light between now and Christmas, so there would be time to get him back up if anyone gets hurt (unless it's a pre-game situation like the one that felled Andy Sutton earlier this year).

MAKE SOME SPACE

In order to make room in the top six for Hall, Renney dropped Ryan Smyth down to the third line with Ryan Jones and Eric Belanger. After scoring 11 goals in his first 19 games, Smyth, the feel-good story of the season, has cooled off some. He had two assists in eight games heading into Thursday night.

ANOTHER OFF DAY FOR KHABIBULIN

Nikolai Khabibulin still isn't ready to play. He sat out Thursday's game in Phoenix, which is odd, considering it's been seven days since his last game. But despite the red flags, head coach Tom Renney insists there is no injury, that they're just trying to get the 38-year-old some rest.

"(He's) just tired, fatigue," said Renney. "Coaches never want to admit mistakes but last year we played him a lot, a lot early. There is obviously a better balance this year. When we see those stretches where we might be able to have him rest up we're going to take advantage of it."

Khabibulin backed up last Saturday in Calgary, had an off day Sunday, and didn't practice Monday or Tuesday. He's been out so long that Renney says rust is now a concern.

"I want to make sure he's ready. You don't just put a guy in after a practice in a half."

Khabibulin, who says he's fine, practised hard on Thursday, and left the ice in a full sweat long after the rest of the players had left.

THIS AND THAT

Fort Saskatchewan's Ryan Whitney was honoured pre-game for becoming the 75th player in NHL history to reach 600 assists. He is currently sixth overall among active assist leaders with 601. Whitney's next milestone is 100 career power play goals - he's at 99.

Phoenix's power play goal Wednesday in Anaheim was just their second in the last 10 games . Goalie Mike Smith was 1-4-0 in his previous five starts and had been pulled twice . Shane Doan, with 1,150 games played for the Jets/Coyotes franchise, is tied for second among active players with Martin Brodeur of New Jersey in games played with one organization. They trail only Nick Lidstrom (1,523 with Detroit) . Since Dave Tippett arrived in Phoenix, the Coyotes 80-9-12 when scoring first and are 55-17-22 in one-goal games.

robert.tychkowski@sunmedia.ca

@SUN_TYCHKOWSKI


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