The Blue Jackets return from a disappointing Florida trip to host a Coyotes team that has been struggling, as well, but picked up a pair of recent victories. Arizona comes into Columbus winners in two of its last three, including an impressive comeback win in Montreal on Sunday. It was a feel-good win for the Coyotes, bouncing back from a 7-2 loss in Ottawa and the seven-game losing streak that preceded their two-win weekend.
The Coyotes sit second-to-last in the Western Conference, seven points ahead of the Edmonton Oilers. They have the second-worst goal-differential in the NHL (-54) ahead of only the Buffalo Sabres. They also have the fifth-worst penalty kill in the league. Not helping any of these numbers has been the play of one of their true star players that has not been up to its usual standards.
It was only three seasons ago that goaltender Mike Smith led the Coyotes to their first division title and an appearance in the Western Conference Final. The Coyotes responded to his strong play after the lockout-shortened 2013 season, locking up their franchise goaltender for six years. That investment has not looked strong this season, with Smith posting the lowest save percentage (.888) and highest goals-against average (3.49) of his career.
Devan Dubnyk shouldered the load for part of the season before GM Don Maloney traded him to Minnesota, a move Maloney also said was meant to restore the faith in Smith. “We know how good he can be, and this puts the emphasis on getting Mike back in the net,” said Maloney.
Despite their trials this season, the Coyotes, and Smith in particular, certainly brought their best in their last meeting with the Blue Jackets.
The Coyotes beat the Jackets 6-3 in Glendale in Columbus’ first game of the new year. The Jackets held a 2-1 lead early in the second period, before the game was taken over by Martin Hanzal. Hanzal, playing reportedly while ill, recorded a goal and three assists in the final two periods. Sam Gagner also had two goals for the Coyotes.
Also on the scoresheet was defenseman Oliver Ekman-Larsson with his 10th goal of the season. The All-Star blueliner now has 14 goals this year to lead all NHL defensemen. Smith got the win for the Coyotes, stopping 23 of 26 shots.
Former Blue Jackets center Antoine Vermette is having another solid season, second in scoring for the Coyotes (11-20-31) and attracting the attention of the rest of the league. Vermette, 33, is a strong and dependable two-way center that can play up and down the lineup, is strong in the face-off circle, and he adds plenty of offense for his role. His name has popped up in the rumor mill this season, but Vermette has been all-business with Arizona despite it being a disappointing season so far in the desert. Vermette enters Tuesday night’s game playing good hockey, and he's always had an extra step when playing one of his former teams.
Keith Yandle is one of the best American-born defensemen in the game, and in terms of offensive production, he leads the Coyotes with 34 points, currently eighth-most in the league. He also has points in seven of his last eight games (0-8-8). While Yandle still puts up the points, he hasn’t scored a goal since Dec. 23 and he has only two power play goals on the season. Still, Yandle can provide a dynamic element from the back end that not many players can, with a combination of skating, power, and offense that makes him a go-to guy for the Coyotes, who have a productive blue line with the likes of Oliver Ekman-Larsson patrolling the back end along with Yandle.
“Shoot the Puck!”
The Coyotes have some skilled young players that indicate the team isn’t far from contending again, and they have some veterans that still produce regularly. They also have the seventh-ranked power play in the league, though their 26th-ranked penalty kill neutralizes that strength. The team’s most glaring downfall has been in net with Smith. Despite that knowledge, the Blue Jackets managed only 26 shots to the net against Smith in a game in which Smith played well and still surrendered three goals. The Jackets average only 27.4 shots per game, the fourth lowest average in the league. Tuesday night, no puck thrown on goal is a bad play.