The Coyotes need to slow the game down and play a physical brand of hockey to be successful this season
If you look at the success of the Phoenix Coyotes last season, it was predicated it on rock-solid defense and outstanding goaltending. If the Desert Dogs have any chance of repeating as the Pacific Division Champions and advancing in the 2013 NHL Playoffs, they have to revert back to previous form and maintain their identity, one that they have formed under head coach Dave Tippett.
While the Coyotes have started out slow, you have seen glimpses over the past few games of the play that led the team to so much success last season.
The defense has been better, the goaltending has been excellent and the offense has been opportunistic. Over their past three games, the Coyotes have picked up three points and shown grit as they grind through this very difficult, early portion of their schedule.
This article will explore the three reasons why the Coyotes need to get back to their style of play for them to be successful this season.
The Coyotes Keith Yandle is one of the better skaters on the team, but many of his teammates struggle keeping up with a faster pace of play
One thing the Coyotes are lacking is overall team speed. They have some fast and skilled players, but to play at such a high speed while retaining skill is very difficult to do. When the games get high-tempo, the 'Yotes begin to make mistakes and have a difficult time regaining control of the puck.
Two games have shown this weakness so far this season as the Coyotes lost to San Jose and Edmonton.
Some might argue that these were among the best games the Coyotes played this season. I agree for the most part. Their tenacity and gutty play kept them in the games and even allowed them to have a chance to win both games.
In fact, they outplayed both of those teams for long periods of time during those games, but could not seem to come away with victories.
Others might argue that they had key players hurt and that they were not at full strength. This is also true, as Martin Hanzal, Matthew Lombardi, Rusty Klesla, Steve Sullivan and Mike Smith have missed multiple games this season.
But, it's what happened when the game turned into a horse race that has fans concerned.
San Jose scored a third-period goal on backup goaltender Jason LaBarbera and they began to turn the screw on the Coyotes. Their top two lines can really skate and maintain puck control, and it seemed that the Coyotes could not seem to get it back when they truly needed to.
Edmonton's top two lines were flying around the ice last night, and it seemed at times that the Coyotes were standing still. The young talent on display for the Oilers was mind-boggling. They controlled the puck for what seemed like endless periods of time in the Coyotes zone, although they could not seem to capitalize.
Although, the Coyotes have guys like Keith Yandle and Oliver Ekman-Larsson who can skate on 'D', others like Michael Stone, David Schlemko and Zybnek Michalek had trouble keeping up with the pace of play. They played really hard and gave it their all, but it still wasn't enough as Edmonton won in overtime.
The Coyotes forwards are not the fleetest of foot either, and this poses problems when you talk of back-checking against teams that can really skate. While Mikkel Boedker and Lauri Korpikoski can skate really well, David Moss, Kyle Chipchura and Shane Doan struggle at times to get back on defense which can lead to odd man rushes that the Coyotes cannot afford to give up.
The Coyotes Chad Johnson has been a pleasant surprise this season filling in for Mike Smith
The Coyotes have issues between the pipes this season.
Last season's team MVP, Mike Smith, has been on injured reserve with an injured groin, although he might return as early as this weekend.
Backup goaltender Jason LaBarbera was given the first crack at replacing the injured Smith and, while playing well at times, could not lead the team as effectively as Dave Tippett wanted him to. LaBarbera was 1-2 in his limited playing time and couldn't seem to make the big save when it was absolutely necessary—something Smith did regularly last season.
Third string goaltender Chad Johnson started the last two games in net for the Desert Dogs and has been very good (1-0-1, 0.98 goals against average, .952 save percentage).
He has been getting plenty of help from his defense who have picked up their play to help the career minor league goaltender in net. But he has also stepped up his game to try to momentarily replace Smith and give the team a lift which they desperately need.
If the Coyotes can slow down play and get defenders and back-checking forwards back in position, they tend to do a pretty good job of limiting good shot opportunities. The Coyotes are one of the best shot blocking teams in the league. Zybnek Michalek and Dave Schlemko are among the league leaders in blocked shots, and the team's defensive scheme is designed to force the offense into very difficult scoring situations.
When the Desert Dogs play this way, they limit quality scoring opportunities and can win low scoring games. They played very well defensively against Nashville and Columbus, giving up one goal combined in both games.
Low-scoring, high-intensity, defense-first hockey is the only way the Coyotes will succeed this season.
The Coyotes David Moss keeps the puck in the offensive zone against Los Angeles
When games get chaotic and helter-skelter, the Coyotes seem be unable to make good decisions on the offensive side of the ice. When they keep things simple and slow the game down, they enable their cycling game to get going and that allows the Coyotes to set up their offense.
There are only a few guys in the 'Yotes lineup that should scare you in an open-ice situation with the puck on their sticks. This means that the Coyotes should not look to counter-attack in a ferocious manner ala an Edmonton or a San Jose. Those teams have six-plus tremendously skilled forwards that are quick and handle the puck extremely well.
The Coyotes need to look to dump and chase, grind it out along the boards, assert their physicality and control the pace of the game. If they do this, guys like Shane Doan, David Moss, Antoine Vermette, Martin Hanzal and Nick Johnson can become extremely effective setting up the more highly skilled players with passes from the corners and from behind the net.
Walking the puck out after gaining control allows guys like Radim Vrbata, Mikkel Boedker and Steve Sullivan to find open areas of ice that they can maneuver into looking to release a quick shot from a pass from their teammates.
This type of play also opens up the dangerous options the Coyotes have at the point in Keith Yandle, Derek Morris and Oliver Ekman-Larsson. Those three possess a variety of shot options from the point that can cause defenses a whole heap of trouble.
Finally, this type of play is structured. Very rarely are you going to see odd-man rushes break out against the team on offense, because you generally have two men at the point protecting against just that from happening.
If the Coyotes can play in this fashion, they will have a chance to repeat last season's heroics, as they look to be opportunistic on the offensive end, and cash in on their chances this season.