New Coyotes goaltender Curtis Joseph is well aware of the surprises that lie in wait in the NHL playoffs.
He has experienced them firsthand each of the last two seasons when his Detroit Red Wings were upset in the early rounds by the eventual Western Conference champions. In 2004, the top-seeded Red Wings lost to the No. 6 seed Calgary Flames in the West semifinals, and in 2003, the Anaheim Mighty Ducks (No. 7) sent Detroit (No. 2) home with an opening-round sweep.
As goalies usually are, Joseph was shouldered with a lion's share of the blame after losing each series to an upstart team, but the results were hardly Joseph's fault, said Coyotes assistant coach Barry Smith, who held the same position with the Red Wings during that time.
"Every night he gave us a chance to win," Smith said.
He simply didn't get enough offensive support. Joseph finished with a 1.39 goals-against average and a .939 save percentage in nine postseason games in 2004, and in ’03 had a 2.08 GAA and .917 save percentage while Detroit scored only six goals in four games.
And he compiled those numbers while playing with an injured right ankle each year. It's since taken three operations for Joseph to get healthy.
"The first one (in August 2003) was on an odd bone that was coming off the back near my heal. I went to the Cleveland Clinic to get that taken off," Joseph said.
Recovery time forced him to miss the start of the next season, and Joseph said the ankle didn't feel healthy until around Christmas. Then after the ’04 season, "I had two more (surgeries) because the bottom of my tibia was broken," he said.
But now Joseph is 100 percent.
"I'm much better.. . . The year off helped a lot," said Joseph, who in August decided Phoenix was the right fit for him after Detroit opted not to bring him back, instead going with Manny Legace and Chris Osgood.
"The ankle feels good. I'm ready to go."
Joseph is still shaking off the rust of not playing during the lockout — he's given up 20 goals in three preseason games — but that has not shaken the confidence of Phoenix's coaching staff.
"Veteran goalies know themselves pretty well, and they understand what they have to do to get themselves to the place where they have to be," said Smith, who added Joseph was a slow starter in Detroit also. "He works extra hard in practice, did some extra stuff (Tuesday). We have three games left, and we'll see how he comes out of that."
Health is most important. The last season Joseph was injury free (2001-02), he led the Toronto Maple Leafs to the brink of the Stanley Cup finals, where they fell to another upstart, the Carolina Hurricanes, in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference finals.
Advancing that far may be a stretch for the Coyotes this season since they are more often described as a team on the rise rather than one of the Western Conference favorites. But with the NHL so wide open this season, Joseph said he is "very optimistic" about Phoenix's chances.
"We have a good blend of youth and experience," he said. "Hopefully, it's going to carry us into the playoffs."
And then, as Joseph can attest to, anything can happen.
LOOSE PUCKS: Smith said the Coyotes will decide today who will start in goal tonight.. . . The Coyotes reduced their roster to 30 Tuesday, sending forwards Jakub Koreis, Doug Doull and Martin Podlesak, defenseman Matthew Spiller and goalie Steve Passmore to San Antonio's training camp.. . .
After practice, coach Wayne Gretzky and general manager Mike Barnett flew to San Antonio for a press conference to promote Phoenix's new American Hockey League affiliate.