Two respectable games just after the midway point do not make a season, but the Phoenix Coyotes have to feel better about themselves.
After wallowing in despair in recent weeks, the Coyotes appeared to have turned the clock back to their fateful season of a year ago. There, they rewrote franchise history and advanced to the Stanley Cup semifinals.
With the emotion and zeal still fresh when training camp was slated to begin, that passion was put on hold during the lockout. Resuming play in late January, the fervor seemed zapped from this intrepid band of warriors.
At one point, the Coyotes allowed an alarming 22 goals in five games and managed only shootout wins in those five games. Certainly, that is not the mettle or production worthy of a team in playoff contention.
Yet, the last two games appear to exorcist demons of recent weeks. In efforts characterized by strong defensive play and opportunistic forwards capitalizing on chances, the Coyotes put together solid consecutive efforts.
In stopping the defending Stanley Cup champions Los Angeles Kings 5-2 Tuesday night in Jobing.com Arena before 15,075, the Coyotes continued to tease. Plagued by inconsistent play in this lockout-shortened season, Phoenix has wavered.
Last Saturday, goalie Mike Smith and the defense turned the page back to last season. In perhaps their most dominating effort in recent weeks, they took out Dallas 2-1 and limited the Stars to few good scoring opportunities.
At this point, the Coyotes continue to vacillate between good and evil, and between productive and destructive.
Against the Kings, they built a 4-0 lead but allowed L.A. to crawl back with two power-play goals. Then, Coyotes forward Rob Klinkhammer, playing for his third NHL team, picked up his second goal in as many games to create separation.
“I liked the way we played the first 35 minutes of (the L A. Game),” said coach Dave Tippett. “I did not like the way the played in the final minutes of the second period and the whole third. This is not the way we defend and we need to play on a consistent basis.”
With a revised schedule, Tippett said his team needed to take advantage. On Monday night, the Kings defeated Calgary 3-1 and then traveled to Phoenix.
“They were the fresher team and we were the tired team,” said L.A. coach Darryl Sutter. “That was not hard to figure out.”
If the Coyotes are to take advantage of opportunities in the final seven weeks of the season, forward Mikkel Boedker could be the answer. Coming off a strong playoff season last spring, Boedker appears to be ready to make the leap among elite players.
His speed about the rink and his acumen around the net make him perhaps the most dangerous player wearing Sedona Red. Picking up two goals against the Kings, Boedker demonstrated his ability to get open and intelligently read the opposing defense.
“It’s nice to get chances and able to put the puck in the net,” he said. “But, the win is important. We talked about this game for the last two days. We believe we’re an elite team in the West and we can play with anyone.”
While Boedker may have the physical skills, he’s done very little in what was considered his “breakout season.” Prior to the two-goal effort against the Kings, he managed only four goals in his 25 games and scored only two goals in his last 16 games
After meeting with Tippett the day before the Kings game, there was a change in his game.
“(Boedker) has to have the puck more,” Tippett said. “When he handles the puck, he can be a very dangerous player. He has to have the puck more, and we talked about that.”
Against L A., Boedker was around the puck with greater consistency and the result was evident. His two-point night was his second multi-point game of the season, and his first since two assists against Columbus on Jan. 23.
For Phoenix to challenge down the stretch, Boedker has to the find the net with greater consistency. Also, the support cast around him—like captain Shane Doan, forwards Martin Hanzal, Antoine Vermette, Raffi Torres, Steve Sullivan and the injured Radim Vrbata (who missed his last 11 games with a foot injury)—needs to pick up its collective performance.
Until that happens, not only will the Coyotes chase the puck, but they'll also continue to chase teams in a desperate attempt to gain postseason position.
Now, Phoenix hits the road to play seven of its next nine games away from Jobing.com Arena. The road trip includes two games in two nights against the Kings at Staples Center and additional stops in St. Louis, Columbus, Minnesota, Nashville and San Jose.
“With the schedule ahead, winning here was very important,” Tippett added. “Fortunately, we were able get the wins.”
Top-heavy now with road games, the Coyotes' push for postseason play should play out on two levels. First, their verve as a road team will be tested, and the glaring inconsistencies in their play may become even more glaring.
Mark Brown is a Featured Columnist for Bleacher Report. Unless otherwise noted, all quotes were obtained first-hand.
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