Despite snapping a three-game losing streak with a 4-2 victory over Edmonton Dec. 15, the Phoenix Coyotes appear as a team in recovery mode.
Coach Dave Tippett continues to stress emotion, commitment and finishing plays, and the Coyotes, at times, seem to get the message. Through December, Phoenix remains inconsistent, and as a team, cannot afford to fall through any cracks.
Teams in the Western Conference are so bunched together that any sustained losing streak will put that team on the outside. Coming into the games of Dec. 15, 14 standing points separated the Top 12 teams in the conference.
Though Tippett indicated the Coyotes played well at times in the previous night’s defeat to the Ducks in Anaheim, Phoenix came out against the Oilers and displayed the sense of urgency needed to maintain pace with Western Conference contenders.
“Losing three straight was enough,” said forward Radim Vrbata, who chipped in with his 15th goal of the season. “At this point, we didn’t want any more losses. We had a better effort, and were able to move puck better in the offensive zone.”
Going forward, the Coyotes need to address the issue of consistency, or in their case, inconsistency. Coming into the Edmonton game, they hit the skids in three straight and dropped five of its previous seven games. From a first-place perch in the NHL’s Pacific Division, they dropped into a tie for second with San Jose behind Dallas.
With the Stars defeating the New York Islanders Dec. 15, the Coyotes, with their victory over Edmonton, remain two points behind Dallas in the division. With standing points as a precious commodity, the ability to bounce back becomes more important with each passing game.
“We need to find ways to win, and (against Edmonton), we found that,” said captain Shane Doan, who scored the game winner at 11:45 of the third period against the Oilers. “We were more physical than in past games, and when we’re going hard, we know we’re okay.”
In the process against Edmonton, the Coyotes blew leads of 1-0 and 2-1 but showed the ability to respond.
Doan picked up the goal-ahead goal when he backhanded in a rebound in front, and Oliver Ekman-Larsson added an insurance goal when he scored on a sharp angle from deep in the left face-off circle at 14:37 of the final period.
“You look at the Anaheim game when Ekman-Larsson was minus three to a plus three the next night (against Edmonton),” said Tippett. “That shows the mental resiliency to recover. He’s becoming a very good player, and will likely get better.”
In the end, the Edmonton win was just one game in a maze of 82, but the Coyotes need to string a bunch of creditable victories or fall at risk of looking up to other teams.
REACHING A MILESTONE
Forward Ray Whitney picked up two more assists against the Oilers to give him a team-high 18 assists.
On Dec. 8 at Detroit, he recorded his 600th assist and became the 75th player in NHL history to reach that number. Whitney was honored for his achievement in a pregame ceremony in which his mother, father and family members attended.
“Since I was small, my dad urged passing the puck,” Whitney said. “From that early age, I always shared the puck and passed whenever I could. He instilled that in me.”
As far as reaching 600 assists, Whitney smiled, “I guess that means I’ve been around for long time.”
Then, he referenced another leader in handing out assists.
“I guess I have a ways to go after I received that text from Ron Francis,” he smiled. “He told me I have 600 more to catch him.”
For his 23 seasons in the NHL, Francis, who played with Hartford, Pittsburgh, Carolina and Toronto, is second all-time in assists with 1,249. Wayne Gretzky remains the all-time leader with 1,963 assists.
NEXT FOR THE COYOTES
After the New York Rangers skate into Jobing.com Arena Dec. 17, Phoenix has only three of its next 13 at home. That includes dates in the desert with the Blues (Dec. 23), the defending Stanley Cup champions Bruins (Dec. 30) and the Islanders on Jan. 7.
EDITOR'S NOTE - Quotes in this story were obtained by the author in post-game interviews after the Edmonton at Phoenix game Dec. 17, 2011