Phoenix Coyotes: Has the Freefall Begun?

Any professional team loves a long home stand. Playing in front of your home crowd in familiar territory is what the Phoenix Coyotes had needed. In the last long road trip from Dec. 17 to 23 up north, they were able to manage four points in four games, three of which could not be decided in regulation.

READ MORE: Four Points, Doan Back and a Missed Olympic Invite

Things didn’t start out favoring the Coyotes to open up the six-game home stand, which would be the longest of the season. A Jan. 2 2-0 loss to the Columbus Blue Jackets was the first shutout Phoenix suffered this season. On Jan. 4 against the Philadelphia Flyers, they let another one get away, even with captain Shane Doan back from his illness, after giving up a 3-1 lead after a period and a half and losing 5-3.

Even after dishing a 6-0 blowout to the Calgary Flames, the Coyotes entered their last two games tied for 8th in the Western Conference with the Minnesota Wild, who came to visit Thursday night. Playing another team facing a free fall gave the chance for either club to take command in what has become a very competitive and tight playoff race for the final two wild card spots.

Entering the third period tied at 1-1, Minnesota figured out that Phoenix’s defense, which has been very sputtery all season, would soon collapse at any moment. Minnesota center Kyle Brodziak took a misplayed puck from the Wild’s zone and went coast-to-coast, beating Phoenix goaltender Mike Smith to give the Wild the lead. Minutes later, Smith predicted incorrectly a clear puck, leaving the net wide open on a power play shot for Minnesota forward Justin Fontaine. Fontaine later closed out the game with a hat trick on an empty netter.

“We had our opportunities to score, and we didn’t. We gave them an opportunity to hang around and they did, and they found a way to win,” Doan said after the loss to Minnesota. “If we want to find a way to take it to the next level, take that next step as a group, when we get guys who get those opportunities, we’ve got to score them.

The Anaheim Ducks, who were next on their list to close out the home stand, would give the Coyotes a chance to bounce back against a team that they have lost to in their four previous meetings. Unfortunately, the same story line occurred from Thursday, this time in the second period. Sami Vatanen, Dustin Penner and Ryan Getzlaf each beat Thomas Greiss, in goal for Phoenix, in a five-minute span to break a 1-1 tie. Phoenix managed to score twice in the third, but it was too late. They lost, 5-3.

At this point in the season, excuses become more difficult when all signs point to combined lack of performance. The team has nearly a complete healthy roster with most of its prime players back. Smith is the most beat-up player in the NHL, having faced over 1100 shots so far this season, His lack of performance and building fatigue has made the team wonder how much Smith can take and allow Greiss to start a few more games.

Playing shorthanded has also been their Achilles’ heel, as the Phoenix is one of the worst teams on the penalty kill and remains the only team who has yet to score shorthanded. A team that has played so well from behind to start the season has now begun to realize that this kind of magic is beginning to fade.

“We’ve been inconsistent in every department,” Coyotes head coach Dave Tippett said. “Our goaltending has been inconsistent. Our scoring was good early, and now that’s let down. The goals-against is nowhere near where has to be, and penalty killing and goaltending goes in that bracket. We look like we’re stuck in the mud.”

Doan and the rest of the team always see on the locker room whiteboard what Tippett follows true to a solid hockey team: “Every play counts.” With a season like this, the message seems to be very fitting.

But there is no panic in the locker room just yet, considering the season is only halfway over. With how competitive the Western Conference and Pacific Division has become, the window for opportunity, though, is beginning to close.

“We’re at the halfway mark,” Tippett said. “I’m sure [General Manager Don Maloney] and I will talk in the next couple of days. We have to evaluate where we are and where we have to get to. We’re going to get there somehow. We just have to figure that out.”

News and Notes

Even with defenseman Keith Yandle missing his chance to play for Team USA in February, five Coyotes players will head to Sochi, Russia, to play in the 2014 Winter Olympics. Smith will represent Team Canada as one of three goaltenders, while defenseman Oliver Ekman-Larrson and forward Lauri Korpikoski will wear the colors of Sweden and Finland, respectively.

READ MORE: Vancouver Canucks Send Eight to Sochi Olympics

Smith will be playing for a team defending their gold medal after defeating Team USA in the 2010 Olympics in Vancouver, Canada.

“I never thought I’d be in this position,” Smith said. “I look back four years ago, and I’m in the minors not knowing if I’d ever play in the NHL again, and here I am today, getting announced to the Canadian Olympic team. I’m speechless.”

Center Martin Hanzal and defenseman Zbynek Michalek will also head to Sochi playing for the Czech Republic.

READ MORE: Breaking Down the Blackhawks Olympians

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