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McConnell's Blog: Five Keys to Second Half of Season

Wednesday, 01.04.2012 / 6:46 PM / McConnell's Blog
By Matt McConnell
LOS ANGELES -- There’s nothing quite like an off day in Southern California in the middle of the season, when the temperature breaks the 80-degree mark and the usual smog that fills the valley has given way to crisp blue skies. If you’re Coyotes pre-game show host and game reporter Todd Walsh, you head for the mountains and strap on the snow skis.

Something tells me that’s a better plan than sitting in a hotel room updating a blog. Then again, my plan might be safer.

Matt McConnell
But I thought it might be of interest to some of you for me to lay out what I feel are the five biggest themes for the Desert Dogs as they head into the second half of the hockey season, and at a time when the squad has reached a bit of a crossroads. After a solid start in which they led the Pacific Division and climbed all the way to the No. 3 seed in the Western Conference, the Coyotes have hit the dreaded rough patch, battling hockey’s head winds in order to stay relevant in the playoff race. So here are what I believe are the most important second-half headlines the team will need to conquer if they are to qualify for the playoffs for a third straight time.

1. SCHEDULE SURVIVAL: Traditionally, Western Conference teams are forced to manage the schedule much more than the teams in the East. Then again, there’s a big difference between managing it and surviving it. Since their trip to San Jose in mid-November, the Coyotes have played 17 of 26 games on the road. They have made three separate trips to the Eastern Time Zone. Surrounded around their suitcase-stuffing stints, they have had four one-game homestands. And while Head Coach Dave Tippett would never allow the routine roadies to become a distraction within the locker room, it’s certainly been a fact of this franchise’s recent being. Sure, every team has to play 41 of them a season. And I’m sure there are exactly 29 other clubs that routinely voice some displeasure to their travel situation once the schedule is released in late July. That’s why it’s important for the Coyotes to survive this stretch and not pity themselves along the way. After Jan. 13, they will play nine of the next 11 at home. They will also finish the season with 16 straight games against conference opponents, which is always convenient when trying to control one’s destiny. Tippett told me recently that it’s important to be one of those teams “above the pack of teams fighting for a playoff spot.” No question. Time will tell if the Coyotes get themselves above sea level, so to speak. In the meantime, the team’s pack mentality also needs to be a survival mentality. This stretch truly has been “Hockey the Hard Way.”

Jobing.com Arena. Photo by Norm Hall.
2. HOME COOKING: So I just cried away a paragraph talking about the pile of road games this team has endured since mid-November. But what about the home schedule that’s about to become front and center for this team? As tough as the road slate has been, the Coyotes have endured, and carved out one of the best records in the Western Conference and away from the Valley. So isn’t it about time to start paying off all their road success with a home-ice act that dominates its visitors? When the Coyotes return from their post-Christmas trip, they will do so as a sub .500 team at Jobing.com Arena. Their chances for playoff qualification will undoubtedly be tied to their level of success on home ice, especially given the fact that teams typically find greater success on home ice in the second half as road wins start to dry up. Don’t think Tippett and the coaching staff isn’t aware of this fact. Recently, they have tried different ways to get the team better prepared for home games, including moving game-day skates back to Glendale. Maybe they need to place a call to Jobu, the famous power-hitter from the 1980s hit movie “Major League” and have him spread his incense around Jobing.com Arena for good luck. In all seriousness, with a back-loaded home slate, they’ll still have a chance to turn around their home record.

3. HOCKEY HEALTHCARE: Overall, the Coyotes were a healthy group during the first half of the season. Then came the Mike Smith injury five days before Christmas. Subsequently, they lost two of their top centers in Martin Hanzal and Boyd Gordon. Smith has returned and played well in his first game back in St. Louis. Hanzal and Gordon have been huge losses, especially since faceoff proficiency engages the team’s ability to play a puck possession game. Without faceoff success, they’ve been chasing games more than they’ve challenged. It’s a lineup that’s been very good at times when healthy. But losing key pieces for extended stretches won’t make their push towards the postseason easy at all.

Radim Vrbatam Ray Whitney and Shane Doan. Photo by Getty Images.
4. FORWARD MOTION: Tippett talked prior to the New Year’s Eve game in Minnesota about how the team’s top players had to be the team’s top players. Yes, some great hockey speak here. But it’s a great point by the bench boss nonetheless. In response, players such as Ray Whitney, Radim Vrbata, Shane Doan and Daymond Langkow have ramped up their games. Vrbata responded with a pair of goals in Minnesota and followed it up with the team’s lone marker in St. Louis. Whitney continued his season-long consistency with hard play and a critical insurance goal in Minnesota. Langkow and Doan answered with gritty play and hockey presence. The foursome had numerous chances offensively and combined for 41 shots over the first three games of the trip. Their skill and experience will play a major role in the team’s success during the second half of the season. They will have to be great at times and good always… and ready to carry the load.

Chipchura
5. SUPPORTING CAST: On a team that’s long on hard work and determination and short on superstars that can take over games, the Coyotes’ pack mentality will be front and center with third and fourth liners providing quality minutes and, yes, the occasional offense. Kyle Chipchura has been one of the team’s biggest surprises of the season and a player Tippett has referred to as a “solid pro.” Lately, he’s led the supporting cast by dominating board battles and setting up goals. Lauri Korpikoski has shown a goal-scorer’s touch and could provide support to the aforementioned veterans. Mikkel Boedker has shown the ability to set up scoring chances. Does he have the mindset to shoot more? Better yet, does he see his own potential as a shooter? He should and soon. Paul Bissonnette and Taylor Pyatt are big bodies that need to lead the charge of making it tough to play against the Coyotes (see: Raffi Torres). Think of the role they could play in making life difficult for the visitors who come to play out in the west Walley. Such an opportunity is right there. But it’s up to them.

Throughout the first half of the season, we’ve seen the potential within this group of Coyotes. They shut out the Sharks in San Jose. They put together a 7-1-2 run. They won twice on the road in Chicago in a week. They swept the road portion of the season series with always tough Nashville. They have proven throughout the first half of the season they are top-eight worthy in the West.

It’s up to them.
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