During their first home game of the calendar year 2012, the Phoenix Coyotes did everything right.
Most importantly to the players and coaches, they earned a convincing 5-1 victory over the New York Islanders and ended the first half with a 20-17-5 record for 45 standing points.
Against New York, Shane Doan picked up his first career hat trick, a reality that eluded the Phoenix captain during the first 1,161 games of his 16-year NHL career. Goaltender Mike Smith continued to achieve beyond reasonable expectations when he stopped 31 of 32 Islander shots, and the Coyotes were economical in scoring three goals on their first nine shots.
Yet the win cannot mask the challenge ahead. That hill represents qualifying for the Stanley Cup playoffs. If the Coyotes play the kind of inconsistent hockey that plagued them in the first half of the season, they could join a number of teams watching postseason games on television.
In the first game to start the second half, the Desert Dogs dropped a 2-1 shootout to the Rangers in Madison Square Garden, and that resulted in their seventh loss in eight games.
Not that they threaten to fall immediately from grace—other Western Conference teams and the immediate schedule may present formidable factors.
Two things should be addressed: Primarily, the Coyotes need to score first in a game. When they fail to score initially, they are 3-17-2 in games through January 10. Plus, they must find ways to win close games. Through games beyond January 10, they are 7-7-6 in one-goal games.
“We have to do a better job in winning one-goal games,” said defenseman Keith Yandle after the Islanders game. “We’ve given away quite a few games, so if we do better here, we’ll be all right.”
Coming down the stretch, scoring could be a dilemma.
At the halfway point, the Coyotes have scored five goals in a game only three times and four in a game 10 times, including the victory over the Islanders. Prior to scoring five against the Islanders, they last scored five in a game on October 27 in a 5-3 win at home against the New Jersey Devils.
One player who could provide that spark is winger Radim Vrbata. The native of Mlada Boleslav in the Czech Republic picked up his 20th of the season against the Rangers’ Henrik Lundqvist January 10 and could be on target for a 40-goal season. If that happens, he would be the first Phoenix player to pump in 40 or more since Keith Tkachuk scored 40 during the 1997-98 season.
Center Ray Whitney had 14 goals at the midway mark and could score 30. With 12 goals, Doan remains the only other Coyotes in double digits for goals.
If the season to date has been challenging, it’s probably because of inconsistent play.
“The first two months were solid with great goaltending and strong penalty killing,” said coach Dave Tippett. “In the last two months, we’ve not played well enough. We’ve given up leads late in games and that’s tough to take.”
It’s no secret that teams like Chicago, Detroit, Vancouver and San Jose will get hot, but surprising teams like Minnesota, Colorado, St. Louis and Los Angeles will likely make things difficult for the Coyotes and other clubs on the playoff bubble.
One area of comfort could be the schedule.
The Coyotes have only seven home games in a 16-game period from December 14 until January 16. That includes two trips to the East Coast and four back-to-back series for an eight-game total.
“The schedule for the last month has been brutal and we’ve traveled quite a bit,” said Smith. “We’re in it with many teams for the playoffs, and we have to continue to improve. If we play to our old identity, we’ll be fine. That means limiting the other team’s chance and capitalizing on the opportunities presented to us.”
For Phoenix, the schedule does improve. After completing its present three-game trip with stops remaining in Detroit (January 12) and Columbus (January 13), the Coyotes return home for a stretch of nine games at Jobing.com Arena out of 11 contests.
EDITOR’S NOTE: Quotes in this story were obtained by the author following the New York Islanders at Phoenix game, Jan. 7, 2012.