Biggest Takeaways from Phoenix Coyotes' Clashes with Western Conference Elites

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Biggest Takeaways from Phoenix Coyotes' Clashes with Western Conference Elites
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Derek Morris (53) and the Coyotes must come up with strong efforts against conference opponents.

After the first quarter of the season, there are a few theories to explain the Phoenix Coyotes’ success.

Some contend it’s because of a relaxed and confident environment that was brought about with stable ownership. Others point to an improved power play, influx of free-agent talent and strong goaltending from Mike Smith.

Perhaps the most significant reason deals with the schedule.

Through their first 22 games, the Coyotes have played nine games against Eastern Conference opponents. Going head-to-head against those teams in the Western Conference in general and the Pacific Division in particular should give the Coyotes a greater sense of urgency.

Earning two points among conference rivals becomes huge. As long as the Coyotes continue to produce against those clubs, the greater their chance of overall success.

“The top teams are in the West and how we play against them is a measure of how good we are,” said center Mike Ribeiro. “Playing against those teams makes you play better. Look at the leading team in the East. In the West, they would be in out of the playoffs.”

Ribeiro’s reference is to the Boston Bruins.

By picking up one point in a 4-3 overtime loss at home to Colorado Thursday night, the Coyotes stood at 32 points, one behind Pacific Division-leading Anaheim. The top four teams in each of the Western Conference’s Central and Pacific Divisions have more points than the Bruins.

After play Thursday night, Boston had 30 points to lead the Eastern Conference by two points over each of Pittsburgh and Tampa Bay.

Phoenix coach Dave Tippett pointed to the familiarity of playing teams in the West and gaining a certain knowledge.

“We’re playing the same teams night in and night out and when you do that, you know your opponent well,” he said. “We know their tendencies and can make adjustments. We’re conscious of who we are and that helps us to stay in the fight.”

To recognize the element of competition, the Coyotes know they have be physically prepared and mentally ready. Conference games are critical because they can expose weaknesses that are remembered the next time the teams engage.

“I don’t think there was a greater sense of urgency (against Colorado) just because they’re in our conference,” said defenseman Michael Stone, who scored his seventh goal of the season Thursday to put the Coyotes on the scoreboard late in the second period. “We came out with a high energy level because we wanted to show we’re a top team.”

If the physical preparation is compromised, just sheer presence on the ice can be a factor. The sense of pride enters into the equation and could influence the outcome of a game.

“Against teams like Colorado (and Anaheim, on Saturday at home), they can embarrass you,” said defenseman Derek Morris. “We have to be consistent with the puck and be disciplined. A quick start is imperative and the game especially with Anaheim is huge. It’s a division game and the two points are just as important now as in March and April.”

A lesson learned Thursday night.

The Coyotes fell behind 2-0 before Stone and then Martin Hanzal, midway through the final period, tied the game.

A power-play goal from Antoine Vermette put Phoenix ahead, but the Avs gained the equalizer when Cody McLeod scored with less than three minutes to go.

Then came the game-winner from Ryan O’Reilly on the power play in overtime and that sense of urgency, perhaps once a marginal factor, now looms vital.

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Mark Brown is a Featured Columnist for Bleacher Report. Unless otherwise noted, all quotes were obtained first-hand.

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