Games in early to mid-December usually do not hold a barometer to success of an NHL season.
Yet, the Phoenix Coyotes now embark on a journey which could possess the destiny of their season.
Beginning Tuesday night in Edmonton, the Coyotes play eight of their next 10 games on the road. By the time they set up shop for a six-game homestand beginning Dec. 31 with the Edmonton Oilers, their season could very well be defined.
While coach Dave Tippett continuously tells reporters he sees a highly competitive Western Conference for the balance of the season, that observation is all the more reason for a productive road trip.
“The key is not to beat yourself,” Tippett said after practice Monday and just before the Coyotes headed to the airport. “No question, we face challenges. The crowds will be loud, there will be energy in the buildings and the home team gets the last line change.”
On the road, there is a different mindset, and it’s usually more conservative.
“You have to simplify your game,” said defenseman Derek Morris. “It’s real important to keep the puck in their end, and the more time they spend in their end, the better,”
To that end, forechecking becomes important, and the Coyotes expect to get back forward Lauri Korpikoski sometime during the trip to Edmonton, Calgary, Vancouver and Colorado.
Korpikoski adds the dimension of a strong forechecker and important penalty-killer. He last appeared in a game Nov. 16 against Tampa Bay. Korpikoski missed the last five games but scored goals in each of the last two games he played. That was Nov. 14 at Chicago and the 16th at home against the Lightning.
If the Coyotes are to be successful on this trip, they must break out to better starts.
In two of their past three games, the opposition jumped out to 3-0 leads. The untimely holes were devastating, and Phoenix could not recover from the early demise in each game.
In dropping a 4-2 decision Nov. 25 at Nashville and 5-2 defeat to the Blackhawks at home Nov. 30, the Coyotes demonstrated what not to do if they call themselves “competitive.”
“Right now, we have to battle back too much,” forward Rob Klinkhammer said after the Chicago defeat. “I don’t know what it is, and we can’t do this all season. [Against Chicago] we were flat, and this is a game of motivation.”
With the important road trip on the horizon, the Coyotes point to an hour of power. Their ability to answer the recent doldrums is critical.
“What we need now is a ‘results’ game,” said defenseman Michael Stone. “Better still, a ‘results’ road trip. We have to limit their chances, and the less we have the puck in our zone, the better.”
Coming into the Edmonton game, the Coyotes dropped four of their last five games. The 34 standings points in the Western Conference places Phoenix on the playoff bubble and seven points behind conference-leading Chicago.
To that end, Tippett shifted personnel.
He broke up the defensive pairing of Derek Morris and Keith Yandle. Here, he placed rookie defenseman Connor Murphy with Yandle and moved Morris with David Schlemko. With Rostislav Klesla sent to the minors and Zbynek Michalek out since Nov. 14, Tippett now pairs Oliver Ekman-Larsson with Michael Stone.
On the forward lines, Tippett likes to keep pairs together.
Here, he has captain Shane Doan on right wing together with center Mike Ribeiro and David Moss, a right-handed shot, on the left wing. He’s kept Radim Vrbata on right wing with his long-time center Martin Hanzal and put Tim Kennedy on left wing. Tippett also placed left wing Mikkel Boedker on the third line with Antoine Vermette at center and added Rob Klinkhammer on the right wing.
A fourth line pairs Kyle Chipchura at center with Paul Bissonnette on left wing and adds Jeff Halpern on right wing.
Mark Brown is a Featured Columnist for Bleacher Report. Unless otherwise noted, all quotes were obtained firsthand.