After a challenging start to this lockout-shorten season, the Phoenix Coyotes are beginning to make some noise.
For Phoenix to start a push and seriously challenge for postseason positioning, special teams will likely play a significant role. Though a combined 1-of-8 in their two previous games with the man advantage, that one power-play goal was enough to beat Columbus, with an empty net, Feb. 16.
In this game, Martin Hanzal scored deep in the third period to snap a 3-3 tie and later popped in an empty-net tally to secure the win over Columbus
Two nights later, goalie Mike Smith did not need extra help. He recorded his 22nd career NHL shutout in a 4-0 win over the Flames at home, and increased his season mark to 6-4-1. Still, the importance of special teams, and especially the power play, remains a significant factor in the team’s fortunes.
“You just have to keep working,” Phoenix coach Dave Tippett said after the Columbus game. “Look, it’s hard to score anyway in this league and we need to stay on top of this. We have ideas what to do and if you can win games with the power play, that’s a bonus.”
In the last few weeks, the Coyotes have benefited in the standings with Smith’s improved play in the net and an opportunistic power play. Taking advantage of Columbus and Calgary each playing the night before they skated into Jobing.com Arena, Tippett said good teams realize the importance of beating weary teams.
Columbus coach Todd Richards readily admitted after dropping that recent decision to the Coyotes his team clearly lacked energy. When the Desert Dogs smelled blood, they then closed in for the kill.
“We ran out of gas and it doesn't help when you have to kill seven penalties," he said. "I thought our guys were tired and we had no bounce. We can't give their guys that many opportunities."
Should the Coyotes provide increased power-play production, that could happen with two emerging powers at the point.
Both defenseman Keith Yandle, a previous two-time All-Star, and developing Oliver Ekman-Larsson can terrorize opponents with crafty stick-handling and strong vision of the ice. Though both are left-handed shots, Ekman-Larsson, who operates from the right point, rarely makes a mistake.
Combine their collective vision with effective forechecking from Shane Doan, Raffi Torres, Kyle Chipchura, Antoine Vermette, Nick Johnson and Hanzal, and the Coyotes should be able to increase their power-play production.
Prior to Saturday’s game at Edmonton, the power-play production was 17th in the NHL. The Coyotes need to increase scoring with the man advantage, and should this happen, fortunes are likely to rise.
Now may be as good a time as any to discover this important dynamic. At the same time, the Coyotes must be aware of teams in front and behind.
“We need to get as many points as possible,” said Vermette after the Flames game. “(Against Calgary), we wanted to throw as many pucks at them. This was not our most complete game, but (it) shows how this team is capable of playing."
Winners in four of the last five games, the Desert Dogs have allowed eight goals in their five games, and now must show their mettle on the road.
Beginning with Saturday’s afternoon game in Edmonton, Phoenix embarks on a three-game road trip. Tied with Minnesota for seventh in the Western Conference, but three points ahead of the Oilers, the Coyotes realize the competitive nature of the Western Conference.
While they may be in a position to leapfrog over several teams, they must also guard against a sharp decline or collapse. After all, here’s a team that made the playoffs the last three seasons and has come to expect skating in May.
Mark Brown is a Featured Columnist for Bleacher Report. Unless otherwise noted, all quotes were obtained first-hand.