GLENDALE -- It’s hard to believe that just five weeks into the season, a third of the hockey schedule has already been played. By this time next month, half of the calendar will be in the books. So, what have we learned about this year’s edition of the Phoenix Coyotes?
My thoughts from the broadcast booth
Coming off their trip to the Western Conference finals last season, the team limped out of the gates with a 1-4-0 record. Included in that total was a loss on opening night in Dallas and a heartbreaking meltdown at San Jose in which the team blew a two-goal lead midway through the third period. Since then, the Coyotes have gone 7-2-2, registering points in nine of the past 11 games while shutting out the opponent three times during that stretch. And they’ve done it with a makeshift lineup on most nights. Center Martin Hanzal missed four of the first seven games, defenseman Rostislav Klesla was out for nine straight and forward Raffi Torres missed the first eight serving his NHL mandated suspension that carried over from last spring’s playoff series against Chicago. Besides Klesla, the Coyotes blueline took major hits when David Schlemko was injured in a game against Minnesota and Derek Morris got banged up in a Valentine’s Day game at Nashville. Yet through it all, the team has moved up in the standings while figuring out a way to bank points when many teams would have folded their tents. I would imagine this fact surprises no one, since this is a franchise long on heart and soul if not superstar talent. It’s why their success through the first third of the season is anything but shocking.
Coyotes television analyst Tyson Nash predicted in training camp the team might end up with the most “12-goal scorers” of any team in the NHL this season. His 12-goal scorer analogy represents the equivalent of 20-goal scorer in a regular 82-game campaign. You know, I’m starting to think he may be on to something. Through the first 16 games of the season, the Coyotes contributions have come from all corners of the lineup. Initially, it was Steve Sullivan providing the offense, including a hat trick against Columbus in January. Then, Radim Vrbata provided a five-game scoring streak and Mikkel Boedker jumped in with points in three of four games. Martin Hanzal added a pair of multi-goal games. Need more proof? Take a look at Monday’s game against Calgary. The so-called third- and fourth-line players combined for five points in a 4-0 win over the Flames. Sure, the Coyotes lineup doesn’t have a goal-scorer like Steven Stamkos or Thomas Vanek, but it does have plenty of balance with a system where everyone is responsible for advancing the process towards winning. That fact alone should help their cause as the season progresses.
3. “Special” teams:
Tell me if you’ve heard this before; the Coyotes penalty- killing units are rounding into form. OK, so rounding might not be completely accurate. Maybe dominant would be a better description. After giving up an uncharacteristic three power-play goals against in the first two games, the PK has been brilliant. In fact, the Coyotes have killed off 34 of the last 38 opposition power plays over the past 11 games, good for 89.5 percent. And that success has been reliant on getting by with key members of the unit missing. They were successful without Klesla for nine games and Schlemko over the last six. Boyd Gordon continues to be the anchor of the unit, winning face-offs and blocking shots with zero regard to his health and livelihood. All of Gordon’s 13 blocked shots have come on the penalty kill. Overall, the unit has a total of 45 blocks, which ranks them in the top 10 in the League. As for the power play, it began the season 8-31 over the first seven games but has since cooled off. The results haven’t been as good as what were posted early on, but the unit continues to get good looks. Nash is a firm believer that it’s not the conversion percentage fans should worry about, but whether or not the team is converting at least once a game. Most teams that win the special teams battle each night tend to win the hockey game. Tyson’s take on the power play is an interesting one for sure.
4. “Smitty” being “Smitty”:
Smith was the team’s consensus MVP last season and the biggest factor in the Coyotes journey to the Western Conference finals. Now a third of the way through this season, he’s starting to find his form from that magical run that included the team’s first division championship. Early on, Smith struggled, allowing 10 goals in his first two starts. He also missed four games due to injury. But since coming back, he’s pitched three shutouts, posted a 2.08 goals-against average and a .930 saves percentage. Over that stretch, the Coyotes have posted points in seven of the nine games he has started. As was the case last season, Smith seems to thrive on a heavy workload and appears poised for success in this condensed schedule.
5. Experience and Belief:
The Coyotes began the season with a lineup very similar to what they finished with in the spring, which meant familiarity with systems play had already been baked into the minds of the players inside the dressing room. Last season’s deep playoff run allowed for an automatic buy-in to what Head Coach Dave Tippett and his staff were selling. And after a few games at the start that featured more “summer hockey” than Coyotes Hockey, the team has reverted to its effective brand. It’s back to tight gaps, creating offensive chances off sound defensive play, utilizing speed off the rush and paying the price, whether it be killing penalties, effective board play or going to the “hard” areas to score. They’ve done all of this over the past few weeks and they’ve been rewarded in the standings. More importantly, the players understand what they need to do to win. We’ve seen it on most nights over the past few weeks
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