How Did the Phoenix Coyotes Fall so Far Back in the Pacific Division?

Mark BrownContributor IJanuary 11, 2014

Over the first half of the seaon, the Phoenix Coyotes did not manage and control games.
Over the first half of the seaon, the Phoenix Coyotes did not manage and control games.Norm Hall/Getty Images

After one pundit predicted the Phoenix Coyotes would win the 2014 Stanley Cup, that amounted to putting a team picture on the cover of Sports Illustrated.

Many contend appearing on the cover of SI is a lethal dose of poison. Appear in grand style and that equates to failure.

In nearly true fashion, the Coyotes have fallen quickly from grace. Following a solid start and since reeling off back-to-back wins over Washington on Nov. 9 and St. Louis Nov. 12, the Coyotes have won just eight of their subsequent 25 games.

That puts Phoenix deep in the Pacific Division, and the Coyotes now find themselves battling Vancouver and Minnesota for the final two Western Conference playoff positions.

Right now, the Coyotes appear to be a team in search of answers and in dire need of playing consistent hockey.

Against Pacific Division rival Anaheim Ducks on Saturday, the Coyotes continued down a well-familiar and difficult path.

To start, Phoenix jumped into an early lead with a goal from Lauri Korpikoski less than four minutes into the game but then surrendered five straight goals in a 5-3 defeat. The loss marked the fourth defeat in their past five home games and set players and coaches reeling for answers.

“In the past, we were able to manage and control games,” said coach Dave Tippett after the Anaheim defeat. “Now, we can’t manage games and we’re chasing games. When you chase games, you’re not very good and that’s where we are at this point.”

After the Anaheim game, captain Shane Doan told reporters, “There’s plenty of blame go around.”

An initial look could start between the pipes.

Fingers immediately point to goalie Mike Smith, who sported an uncharacteristic 2.90 goals-against average before the Anaheim game. Compare that number to his 2.29 goals-against average during three years with the Coyotes and a career of eight years with 2.57 with Dallas, Tampa Bay and Phoenix.

In his first 36 games with Phoenix this season, Smith recorded no shutouts and allowed one goal in a game only three times.

Tippett, in a quiet and subtle manner, did not start Smith Jan. 11 in an important division game with Anaheim. Instead, backup Thomas Greiss, who entered the game with the Coyotes’ only shutout of the season and a sparkling 1.89 goals-against average, received the nod from Tippett

“At this point, it’s not the goaltending,” Tippett said. “Maybe you can expect something like we’re going through on the road but when you get home, the expectations go up. Players have to play better, and at this point, we need to get the max out of each player.”

As important as Smith’s decline is the Coyotes' sporadic play on the special teams.

According to statistics compiled by the NHL, the Coyotes entered the Anaheim game with power-play efficiency of 19.0 percent. That was good enough for 14th in the league, but their ability to kill off penalties is far from impressive.

Before the Ducks game, the Coyotes were 26th among the 30 NHL teams in killing penalties. More troubling, they were 28th in the league in killing penalties at home. As well, Phoenix was the only team without a short-handed goal.

After a short two-game road trip to Winnipeg and St. Louis, the Coyotes return home for three against Vancouver, New Jersey and Toronto. With the Coyotes struggling to keep their heads above water for a playoff spot, a few road wins could do the psyche good.

“To turn this around, it takes wins,” Tippett said. “When you win a few hard-fought games, success follows and that turns things around in a hurry.”

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