All season, the Phoenix Coyotes acted like a fuse ready to explode.
Here was a team coming off its greatest season, having earned its way into the Western Conference finals. With the experience of playing within two wins of the Stanley Cup, the Coyotes set the bar high and promised themselves to reach the heights of a year ago. They were set to thunder across the NHL landscape, and serve notice the achievement of last season was not an accident.
Then, the lockout.
The energy, verve, elan and spirit which was perceived as a legitimate springboard to reach the similar achievement of last spring came crashing with a vengeance. The push and drive disappeared and the engine which powered the drive to atop the NHL choked and spurted.
The Coyotes opened the season by dropping four of their first five games. In the middle of this shortened season, they experienced a similar free-fall when they won just twice in 11 games from Feb. 23 to March 28. Then, they dipped perilously close to falling off the edge.
Just when the quest for a playoff position looked precarious at best, the Coyotes appeared to have rallied in their past two contests. A solid win over the defending Stanley Cup champion Los Angeles Kings this past Tuesday night was followed by an equally strong effort two nights later.
By defeating the Detroit Red Wings 4-2 Thursday night before 16,623 at Jobing.com Arena, the Coyotes quietly slipped back within sight of a postseason position.
Yet, the task ahead is daunting.
Phoenix has 11 games left on the schedule, and after a home game this Saturday against Colorado they play seven of the remaining 10 on the road. Plus, they must leap past several teams to secure a playoff position and remain leery of those behind.
“We’re playing with a greater sense of urgency,” said defenseman Michael Stone, who put the Coyotes on the board with his fourth goal of the season less than two minutes into the second period against Detroit. “It’s time for a push and we can’t back down. There’s no time for that.”
Pundits are always baffled by teams who create momentum late in their season.
“We can’t worry about the past,” Stone added. “At this point, we just have to keep going.”
After putting solid efforts in consecutive games against the Kings and Red Wings, captain Shane Doan told reporters after the Detroit game he saw a trend starting several weeks ago.
Beginning with a shootout loss in Columbus March 16, Doan indicated elements of strong team play began to show. The effort, he pointed out, showed an accumulative effort with the wins over the Kings and the Wings.
“It’s been kind of growing,” he said. “We’re playing better but we’re kind of stuck behind the eight-ball. Now, there’s nothing else we can do but to be aggressive. We’ll ride this the best we can and see what happens.”
Though the Coyotes wish to avoid scoreboard-watching, that element of a stretch drive is hardly stoppable. Their fortunes depend on the outcome of other games, but coach Dave Tippett told reporters after the Detroit win that his team needs to remain focused.
“We just have to take care of ourselves,” he said. “Then, we can see how things work out.”
To their credit, the Coyotes were a good team in the win over the Kings but a better team against Detroit.
In gaining certain edges over the Red Wings, Phoenix skated better and exhibited much better puck movement than in recent games. They were more aggressive with the puck along the boards and gained more chances in front of Jimmy Howard, the Wings goaltender.
Plus, the team received a strong lift from goalie Chad Johnson, who filled in for Jason LaBarbera, who was out with the flu. As well, forward Chris Connor, playing his first game since being recalled from AHL Portland, chipped in with a goal eight minutes into the second period..
“I had no worries about the new guys,” Tippett said. “I knew they would come in and you know those guys are going to play no matter. But when you lose four of your six defenseman, that’s not a good way to start a game.”
During the day Thursday, several Coyotes came down with the flu, and the medical report altered Tippett’s lineup. LaBarbera was scratched and defenseman David Schlemko started but took himself out of the game after the first few shifts.
Tippett said afterward he hopes those who came down with the flu will recover in time for Saturday’s game.
If the Coyotes want to remain competitive in the final weeks of the season, every player needs to be compete in what Stone called “a greater sense of urgency.”
Mark Brown is a Featured Columnist for Bleacher Report. Unless otherwise noted, all quotes were obtained first-hand.