Three months have passed since the NHL season began. Many teams predicted to perform at their level have not disappointed. But with the new divisions and playoff format, teams that have been fighting to make the playoffs each season find it more daunting that each game becomes crucial in the point standings.
The Phoenix Coyotes are one of them. A team that has been fluctuating in and out of the eighth spot in the west this season, the Coyotes are somehow finding ways to stay afloat. Before their regulation loss to the Columbus Blue Jackets on Thursday night, they have managed to earn at least a point in their last six games by sending games into overtime yet winning only two. Each point they have earned fortunately gave teams behind them, such as the Dallas Stars and the Minnesota Wild, a harder time catching up.
“We would much rather win in regulation, that’s for sure,” Coyotes head coach Dave Tippett said after Tuesday’s victory against the Edmonton Oilers. “We talk about scratching and clawing, doing everything you can to get points in the regular season. Some games are a little more character-building than others.”
The Coyotes are still playing the same brand of hockey since the beginning of the season, forcing themselves to come back from behind, putting goaltender Mike Smith under pressure to bail his team out, and still leaving holes on the defensive end. They are ranked 26th in the NHL for killing off penalties and 25th in goals against per game. Even worse, when leading after two periods, they have only been able to win about 71 percent of their games, which also leaves them in the bottom five.
Offense has not sputtered, however; Phoenix is still in the top ten in goals per game and one of the hottest teams when playing at home. The biggest question that remains is how much longer this kind of small momentum will last.
Everything and then some went wrong against a Columbus team that Phoenix has historically struggled against — and even worse, it all took place at home. Nathan Horton, who signed this offseason with Columbus but went through surgery in July, made his debut and wasted no time making his presence known. After a shot taken by James Wisniewski in the second period bounced off the pads of Smith, Coyotes defenseman Connor Murphy left Horton open in front of the crease and allowed an open goal. Once again in the third period, on a rebound shot from Fedor Tyutin, R.J. Umberger knocked one in passing Coyotes winger Mikkel Boedker. Both goals came off the power play.
“A team like this will always be a factor in tight games,” Tippett said after the loss to Columbus. “Tonight, I did not like the energy on the ice. Everything needs to be in sync if we want to win.”
Phoenix also lost one of their key players early in the first period, as Oliver Ekman-Larsson was hit from behind into the glass by Derek MacKenzie. He did not return to the ice and is listed as day-to-day. Injuries have plagued the Coyotes, and losing a key role player is the last thing this team wants to face.
After playing nearly two-thirds of their games on the road, they started their five game home stand on Tuesday. Each game could set up where they would be in the playoff chase as conference rivals Minnesota, the Anaheim Ducks and the Calgary Flames come to town.
Shane Doan will return
After sitting out for almost a month with Rocky Mountain spotted fever, Coyotes captain Shane Doan has been cleared by doctors to return to the ice Saturday against Philadelphia. He practiced for the first time on Monday with the team and waits for Tippett’s decision on how much playing time he will receive.
“I felt good. I felt really good,” Doan said after practice on Monday. “It’s one of those things that I’m excited to get out there, regardless of how it goes.”
The biggest concern will be how he will adjust to the style of play. The team will be very wary on how physical he will be ready as he has been mainly off his feet for over three weeks.
“Being off three weeks, it’s tough on the body,” Doan said. “Being off and lying down and not really doing much and fighting whatever it is, it makes it hard.”
A missed Olympic invite
Defenseman Keith Yandle has been one of the hottest NHL players this season, picking up 21 assists and scoring six goals in 39 games. Stats like those would give some spark for Team USA, who is trying to avenge a gold medal game loss to Canada and are, yet again, one of the favorites to win it all.
Unfortunately, Keith Yandle was not one of the 25 to represent the team.
“We did not pick the 25 best players, we picked the 25 players we thought gave us a chance to win the gold medal,” said Team USA general manager David Poile.
With the snub off the roster, Yandle is still poised to perform at his best.
“You’re still playing your season,” Yandle said. “You’re still going about trying to win games for your team. That’s what I’m here to do, and that’s what I’ll keep trying to do.”