Top Shelf: Tippett's Coyotes exceeding expectations once again

Unless it's a story about the franchise's potential move to another city, the Phoenix Coyotes have a hard time cracking the headlines in the world of professional hockey.

Yet, while the club's future in the desert is uncertain at best, the Coyotes have at least found a steadying influence behind the bench, where Dave Tippett continues to get the most out of a team that is short on high-priced talent.

The Coyotes slipped by unnoticed for much of this season, but a spectacular showing in the month of February caught the attention of the rest of the league. If the team can keep up its recent hot play over the last several weeks of the season, a third straight trip to the postseason in as many years under Tippett is almost certainly in the cards.

Phoenix entered February five points out of a postseason berth, but the Coyotes altered their playoff odds dramatically by going 11-0-1 in 12 games last month. The February surge has become a staple during Tippett's tenure with the Coyotes, who are 23-7-2 in the month since he replaced Wayne Gretzky as the team's head coach prior to the 2009-10 campaign.

The terrific month has pushed Phoenix to the top of the Pacific Division heap, where it enters Thursday's action with a slim two-point lead over San Jose. Winning a division title would be a first for the franchise, which began play in the NHL as the original Winnipeg Jets back in 1979.

Of course, a division title also would translate into one of the top-three seeds in the West and that could help the Coyotes get past the first round of the playoffs for the first time since the franchise moved from Winnipeg to Phoenix in 1996.

The Coyotes' success under Tippett has been all about discipline. Phoenix competes as hard as any team in the league on the forecheck, while also managing to stay out of the penalty box. In fact, no NHL team has taken fewer penalties (230) this season than the Coyotes, who average just 8.3 penalty minutes per game.

The other key to Phoenix's success under Tippett has been stellar play in net, although that really seems to be a byproduct of the Coyotes' dedication to responsible play and team defense.

Take the case of former Coyotes goaltender Ilya Bryzgalov, who earned himself a nine-year, $51 million contract from Philadelphia over the summer thanks to an excellent four-year run in Phoenix. However, while Bryzgalov has struggled mightily with the Flyers this season, the Coyotes were able to replace their former workhorse goaltender at a bargain price when they signed Mike Smith to a two-year, $4 million deal.

Like a lot of the Coyotes' personnel moves, the Smith signing came with little fanfare. After all, the 29-year-old backstop had compiled a mediocre 67-66-19 record over 162 NHL games with Dallas and Tampa Bay before joining Tippett's team.

While Smith was supposed to battle Jason LaBarbera for playing time, he has exceeded expectations by essentially becoming what Bryzgalov was for the Coyotes, a player they can count on for 60-plus starts a season. Smith has turned in career-best numbers across the board this season, going 29-14-7 with a 2.24 goals-against average and a .927 save percentage in 50 games.

Sadly, while the head coach has turned the franchise into an annual playoff contender, one scenario Tippett hasn't been able to change is the Phoenix metropolitan area's indifference to hockey.

It seems the fan base has given up on keeping the team in Glendale, Ariz., long-term, as the Coyotes are still dead last in the NHL in attendance this season, drawing just over 12,000 fans a night. Even the 29th-ranked New York Islanders, who play in a 40-year-old arena that is derisively called "The Mausoleum," have lured over 52,000 more fans to hinterlands of Long Island this season.

Since taking over the team in 2009, the NHL has been trying to lure an ownership group that will keep the team in the desert. Although the league says it's still optimistic it will find such an owner, it's getting increasingly difficult to see this saga ending in any other way than the team's relocation to another city.

But, through it all, Tippett has been focused only on things that he can control. He can't force the people of Phoenix to support the Coyotes, but he can get his players to treat every game like it's their last.

For a franchise that doesn't even know where it will be located a year or two from now, that's probably not that a tough sell.