In Major League Baseball and the NBA, the All-Star Game usually signals the half-way point of the season.
The NFL All-Star game is now the week before the Super Bowl while the NHL’s traditional break for assessment is Christmas. With essentially October, November and December in the record books and three months of play to follow, teams use the holiday break to review the past and plan for the future.
In the case of the Phoenix Coyotes, the excitement of new ownership, the addition of talented free agents, and the re-signing of general manager Don Maloney, head coach Dave Tippett and goalie Mike Smith were all encouraging off-season signings.
Once the euphoria died and the Coyotes took to the ice, the enthusiasm of new ownership and expectations for the future quietly died. Production on the ice has not matched the Coyotes’ overall spirit and now leaves this hockey team scrambling to make up ground.
Here at the break, the Coyotes managed a 19-10-7 record—fifth of seven teams in the Pacific Division.
The competitive nature of the Western Conference remains strong and a factor which could impede the Coyotes’ drive for post-season contention.
"I don’t see the Western Conference changing," said Tippett. "I expect teams to be as strong over the course of the season as they were when the season began."
Under the NHL’s new playoff format, the top three teams in each division qualify for the post-season. In the Pacific Division, that would mean Anaheim (with 59 points at the break) wins the division and Los Angeles and San Jose, as the second and third placed teams, would automatically qualify.
That leaves the Coyotes and Canucks to battle the Stars and Wild for the final two playoffs slots in the Western Conference.
Over the first half of the season, there were several factors which prevented the Coyotes mobility within the conference.
For a player rejuvenated after signing a six-year, $34 million, according to capgeek.com, Smith has clearly performed under the radar screen.
At the break, he has recorded no shutouts and allowed one goal in just two games of his 31 starts.
Both of those games were early in the season. One was recorded opening night over the New York Rangers (4-1) and the other was a 3-1 victory against the Kings on Oct. 19.
His goals against of 2.83 for the 31 starts is far above his Phoenix career marks of 2.29 and 2.57 for his overall NHL career. These figures are at the start of the season.
Coming into the break, the Coyotes have scored only one goal in four of their last five games.
In general, they seem to score in bunches and never get into a regiment of lighting the red lamp consistently throughout games.
Over the first half, they created a penchant for scoring late in games and forcing overtimes. While the dramatics sat well with fans, Tippett and his staff had no answers as to why the team was slow early in games and did not score at a consistent pace.
To be fair, the Coyotes were hit with injuries which knocked out key players for key periods of time.
While the headlines seem to focus on captain Shane Doan and his diagnosis of Mountain Valley fever, two other players lost significant time.
On the blue line, Zbynek Michalek—one of the most fearless players in the league in blocking shots—missed nine games from mid-November to early December. He returned for only three games, and 40 seconds into his fourth game back at Montreal on Dec. 17, reinjured his back. The 31-year-old native of Jindrichuv Hradec in the Czech Republic is now out indefinitely.
Forward Lauri Korpikoski—defined by Tippett as an important penalty killer and key component on the Coyotes’ third line—missed a month and returned Dec. 21 against Ottawa.
One aspect of improvement over last season was the Coyotes’ production on the power play in the first half.
Conversely, their ability to kill penalties has been poor.
In games through Dec. 22, they were 25th in the league in allowing opposing power-play goals. Equally disturbing, they were ranked 27th at home in killing penalties. These figures were compiled by the NHL.
The absence of Michalek was a factor and with Korpikoski out, Tippett rearranged his penalty-killing teams.
Plus, the Coyotes remain the only team yet to score short-handed this season.
Mark Brown is a Featured Columnist for Bleacher Report. Unless otherwise noted, all quotes were obtained first-hand.
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