Phoenix Coyotes' Keys for Sneaking into the Playoffs
Earlier this week, I said that the franchise was sending the wrong message in trading three "core" components at the trading deadline in Matthew Lombardi, Raffi Torres and Steve Sullivan. If the play of the team over the last two games against Colorado and Detroit is any indication as to how this team will play the rest of the season, I will happily eat some large chunks of crow.
Maybe the message was that lack of production will not be tolerated and that new faces who had been playing well in the minors were going to get their chance, albeit under some very difficult circumstances.
Two games after the trade deadline, the Coyotes are two points out of the playoffs after winning their third game in a row. Their performances this week have been nothing short of amazing, and the call-ups are proving that management was right to have faith in their abilities.
I know forgiveness from readers does not come easy, but the Coyotes still have 10 games left to see if this plan will ultimately lead them back into the playoffs. With the effort that they have put in this week, it restores hope that the playoffs are still a possibility.
Here are the four keys I see for the Coyotes to burst through the back door and into the 2013 Stanley Cup playoffs.
4. Better Power-Play Performances
The Phoenix Coyotes have always been poor on the power play. The franchise has a power-play curse on it. Even back in the days of Keith Tkachuk and Jeremy Roenick, the power play performed in a below-average manner on most occasions.
The Coyotes are 23rd in the NHL with the man advantage this season (14.8 percent). They were able to score once this week on the power play in their three-game home winning streak.
But, the 'Yotes need more consistent production on their power play and will need to improve on their 1-of-11 performance this week.
When you look at the Coyotes' power play this week, they used some different personnel, most notably young call-up Chris Brown, early and often. Brown gives the Coyotes a physical presence in front of the net as he seeks to screen opposing netminders.
Brown is willing to sacrifice his body as he gets beat up in the hopes that the Coyotes can score goals with the man advantage. The Coyotes have not had a player like Brown since Keith Tkachuk used to plant himself in front of opposing goaltenders and make their lives miserable.
But new personnel takes time to get used to, and that could be why they were struggling this week.
Bottom line, to get to the playoffs, Phoenix needs to score more on the power play.
3. More Chris Conner and Rob Klinkhammer
I am a fan of Chris Conner already.
Watching him show no fear going after the Red Wings' Jonathan Ericsson on Thursday night was a sight to behold. The 5'8", 180-pound wing banging bodies into the 6'4", 220-pound defenseman took me and the defensemen by surprise as he looked around as if to say, "Are you kidding me?"
His speed has translated well to the NHL game, and although he is a seven-year NHL vet, he has spent the entire season in Portland of the American Hockey League.
His 40 points in 60 AHL games this season shows that he can put the puck in the net and has the ability to set up his teammates to score, and his tenacity and his savvy with and without the puck have impressed early on.
Rob Klinkhammer's game also translates well to the Coyotes' style of play. He has been hot as of late.
With points in five of his last six games, "the Hammer" has added a scoring touch to his physical style of hockey. His speed is somewhat underrated and he continues to find himself in good scoring situations based on his positioning and foresight as to what might happen as play progresses.
The 6'3", 214-pound wing had amassed 44 points in 53 AHL games with Portland and has continued his fine play by scoring four goals and collecting four assists for eight points in 12 NHL games with the 'Yotes.
2. Production from Radim Vrbata
Part of this syncs up with No. 4. Radim Vrbata is not scoring enough goals, and when the team's leading goal scorer from last season only has seven goals in this campaign, it is time for him to step up his game.
Vrbata has been injured for part of the season and has only played in 23 games. He has 18 points in those 23 games, but at big times, big players are needed to step to the forefront. Vrbata needs to find ways to tickle the twine and score some big goals during the closing stretch.
Part of that can be done by cashing in on the power play. Last season, Vrbata scored nine of his 35 goals on the power play. One issue that he seems to be facing is the fact that he at times would rather pass the puck than shoot it. That is not is role with the squad. His role is to score big goals.
He is a goal scorer—and while passing is necessary at times, he needs to shoot the puck more often. Last year, he averaged three shots on goal a game. This season, he is averaging 2.9 shots on goal per game. It is a small decrease, but since he is one of our more talented scorers, he needs to fire the puck toward the net as often as possible.
Goal scorers often say that the puck can only go in when you shoot it. Vrbata is a good goal scorer and needs to pick it up in the last 10-game stretch of the season.
1. A Healthy and Red-Hot Mike Smith
Mike Smith needs to be not good, but great. First though, he needs to stay healthy.
Smith has missed 12 games this season, most of those due to injury. If he is healthy down the stretch, look for him to get every start to see if he can put this team on his shoulders again and lead them into the NHL playoffs.
Saturday marked his return from his latest injury; he performed magnificently against Colorado, notching his fifth shutout of the season in blanking the Avs 4-0. His movement was good, he stood strong in the net in the face of traffic and his puck movement was pristine, even leading to a power-play goal by Martin Hanzal.
Smith will have to play lights out over the last 10 games for the 'Yotes to make a run that will get them into the playoffs. He has done it before, and if he can stay healthy and not sustain any further injuries, he can do it again.