Phoenix Coyotes Pick Up Defensive Execution, but They Need Greater Consistency

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Phoenix Coyotes Pick Up Defensive Execution, but They Need Greater Consistency
Christian Petersen/Getty Images
Coyotes mobbed goalie Jason LaBarbera after his first win since Dec 2011.

Given the results of the two games of the 2013 NHL season, this could be a far different Phoenix Coyotes team than imagined.

Then again, here’s a team which qualified for the Stanley Cup playoffs the last three years with a strong work ethic that superseded pure talent.

Many pundits believed Phoenix overachieved in reaching the equivalent of the NHL’s Final Four last spring. Conversely, players and coaches felt the Coyotes were worthy to stand on the brink of playing for the Stanley Cup.

Dropping their opening two games with a porous defense and spotty goaltender, the Coyotes rebounded in the third game and showed their mettle. They displayed the kind of play which is sure to challenge opponents.

After dropping those initial contests in humiliating style, the Coyotes rebounded with a 5-1 win over Columbus Wednesday night. In the process, they displayed the kind of effort and execution which gained success last season.

One win does not make a season or a trend.

Consistency is now paramount. Because of the ebb and flow from game to game, the Coyotes need to build a core from which to develop a platform for success.

“We did things better, but we can be much better,” said coach Dave Tippett after the Columbus victory. “Compared to the first two games, we had better command of the puck, we defended better and scored some timely goals. It was good to get the first one, and now we need to build on this.”

Going forward, the biggest question for the Coyotes here in the early going is inconsistency on defense. Through the opening two games, here’s a team which allowed 10 goals. Compare that to the two goals allowed in the final five games of last season, and that represents a world of difference.

If the Coyotes are to repeat any semblance of past triumphs, the defense needs to turn the clock back to the end of last season and the playoffs.

There was a taste of how the Coyotes could and should play defense. In limiting Columbus to one goal, the defense moved the puck better out of its end, limited turnovers and allowed Columbus few good scoring opportunities.

“We wanted this one very bad and realized the sense of urgency,” said winger Steve Sullivan, who contributed with his eighth career hat trick against Columbus. “We got back to basics and played Coyotes hockey. Good teams are known for roles and identity, and the roles on this team are set.”

Goaltender Mike Smith needs to equal his achievements of last season.

Through the opening two games, he sported a 5.04 goals-against average. Coming into the Columbus game Wednesday night, the 30-year-old native of Kingston, Ont., was tied with the Capitals’ Braden Holtby for the worst goals-against average among starting goaltenders.

Against the Blue Jackets Wednesday night, Smith did not have the opportunity to show if he elevated his game. Leaving the game with what appeared to be a leg injury, he did not return to the Coyotes bench. In 11 minutes of play, Smith stopped four Columbus shots.

After warm-ups prior to the Columbus game, the training staff approached Tippett and said Smith was tightening. Tippett then alerted backup Jason LaBarbera he might be called at any time.

With 8:20 remaining in the opening period, Smith was pulled, and LaBarbera proceeded to stop 22 of 23 shots. In the process, he recorded his first win since Dec. 21, 2011. That's when he beat Carolina at home.

Tippett said Smith will make the trip to San Jose Thursday night for a game against the Sharks, but his playing status is day-to-day.

If the Coyotes skated in a funk their first two games, they showed the kind of energy, passion and execution against Columbus needed to be truly competitive.

After the Blue Jackets went out to a 1-0 advantage, the Coyotes responded soon after. Sullivan scored his first of three on a rebound of an Antoine Vermette shot in the slot to tie the game.

A pair of goals by Oliver Ekman-Larsson and Sullivan’s three-goal night carried Phoenix to its initial win of the season.

“With a shortened season, we knew this one was big for us,” Sullivan added. “Everyone wanted to put in a better effort. That’s the type of hockey we need to play in order to win.”

In the opening games against Dallas, Chicago and Columbus, the offense scored 12 goals, and that represents a surprise. For a team with a reputation for not having a prolific goal scorer, the Coyotes’ penchant for putting the puck in the net remains strong. Last season, they finished seventh among 15 Western Conference team in scoring.

Through scoring is obviously a vital component in any team’s success, Tippett was cautious about the Coyotes' quick start. After dropping a 6-4 decision to Chicago last Sunday night, Tippett was quick to point out if the Coyotes depend on scoring for survival, that’s a formula for failure.

With those 12 goals in their first three games, the Coyotes’ ability to score is becoming well-documented. Against Columbus, they peppered netminder Steve Mason with 42 shots. With 14 minutes to play in the game, the Coyotes outshot Columbus 33-13.

Still, the Columbus win was the first for the Phoenix. If the Coyotes are to survive in the now-demanding 48-game schedule, they need to play a complete game every night.

 

Mark Brown is a Featured Columnist for Bleacher Report. Unless otherwise noted, all quotes were obtained firsthand.

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