The steady play of Mike Smith is one reason why the Coyotes are off to a solid start.
Not a bad start at 5-3-2 after 10 games, and coach Dave Tippet told reporters there is much to be encouraged.
At this point, that means playoff location, but given the strength of the Pacific Division, the Coyotes will likely battle for every standing point from now until Saturday, April 7. That’s when they conclude the regular season at Minnesota.
For now, Phoenix is out of the gate in relatively good shape and their first test should come in mid-November. That’s when they engage on a five-game road trip with stops at San Jose, Toronto, Philadelphia, Buffalo and Washington.
Then in late November into December, the road odyssey continues with five of six games on the road, and that includes two in the United Center against Chicago.
To exacerbate the plethora of road games directly ahead, the nature of the Pacific Division represents a significant roadblock.
Through the opening month of the season, the Pacific Division is only division in the NHL where all teams have double-digit standing points. Last place Anaheim, with 11 points on Nov. 1, would be one or two points out of second place in three of the league’s other five divisions.
“This speaks of the competitiveness of teams throughout the league,” Tippett said after practice Nov. 1. “Given the nature of the division, I think that makes us a better hockey team. Our players certainly know the challenge. With all the good teams, at this point, we have to be careful that one individual does not beats us.”
There are a few factors why the Coyotes remains competitive, Tippett pointed out.
In not any particular order, veteran players have stepped up their game, captain Shane Doan and Ray Whitney seem reborn again and both are off the strong, scoring starts, the penalty killing, after collapsing against San Jose in the opening game, has become much stronger, and the play of Mike Smith between the pipes is solid.
Smith’s contribution, after the first month, is particularly encouraging.
At the end of last season, the Coyotes could not afford the demands of Ilya Bryzgalov and the goalie ended up signing with the Flyers for $50 million-plus. In the comparison of these net-minders, Bryzgalov, on Nov. 1 and after nine games, sits with a 3.16 goals against average. Smith, in his first eight games with Phoenix, has a 2.57 goals against.
Where the Flyers expected to strengthen their previous anemic goaltending situation, it appears, at this point, they have proceeded in the opposite direction.
The combination of Sergei Bobrovsky (3.75 GAA in three games) and Bryzgalov has the Flyers 28th among the 30 NHL teams in goals allowed and goaltender goals against average.
After opening night when the Coyotes allowed 52 shots on net during 6-3 loss to the Sharks, immediate improvement has been noted.
“After the San Jose game, we came together as a team,” said co-captain Keith Yandle after practice Nov. 1. “The players worked harder and had each others back. Guys could have been discouraged but that did not happen.”
The key element now, according to Yandle is to “stay strong.” Citing the competitive nature of the Pacific Division, Yandle says “improvement” each night also remains an important building block.
“We have to be more consistent,” added right wing Radim Vrbata, who picked up his first two-goal game of the season Oct. 29 against Los Angeles. “In the first 10 game, we’ve been up and down and need to show more improvement.”
The immediate schedule appears to be in the Coyotes favor.
After a brief one-game road trip to Denver and the Avs, they return to Jobing.com Arena for a three-game home stand against Nashville, Edmonton and Montreal. Then, that monster five-game road journey to the East Coast.
Welcome to the Desert
Center Cal O’Reilly, recently acquired from Nashville, will likely make his Phoenix debut Nov. 5 at home against the Oilers.
In five games with the Predators, O’Reilly picked up one assist, and one minor penalty. His brother Ryan plays for Colorado, and O’Reilly said he looked forward to going against this brother. Tippett indicated he wants O’Reilly to engage in one more team practice, Friday, before insertion into the lineup.
That’s because O’Reilly suffered a groin injury two weeks ago and is slowly regaining strength and playing condition.
“This can be long-term thing, so I don’t want to rush back too soon,” he said after practice Nov. 1. “I would consider myself a creative center, hard worker and I don’t care who my linemates might be. I can play with anyone.”
EDITOR'S NOTE: The Tippett, Yandle and O’Reilly quotes were obtained by the author after practice Nov. 1. The Vrbata quote was obtained by the author in post-game interviews, Oct. 28.