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McConnell's Blog: Observations as Coyotes Begin Trip

by Matt McConnell / Arizona Coyotes

CALGARY -- A few thoughts as the Coyotes begin their three-game road trip with stops in Calgary, Vancouver and Edmonton:

SMITTY BEING SMITTY

Photo by Norm Hall.

We’ve seen this before. As the season ramps up, so does the play of Coyotes goaltender Mike Smith. He’s allowed two goals or less in six of his last nine games and continues to lower his goals-against average after a tough opening month. He led the team to wins last week against Toronto and Anaheim, and allowed just a single goal in last Saturday’s loss to the New York Islanders. In the past, his swagger has emboldened his teammates as they push deeper into the season. The team is hoping this season is no different.

“He just looks comfortable in net,” Head Coach Dave Tippett said. “Earlier in the year, he was fighting a little bit and now he seems in rhythm and in a groove. His two games on the weekend were excellent and he gave us a chance to win. He’s got his game in order and we have to play well in front of him.”

Smith echoed Tippett's assessment earlier this week.

“I’m starting to feel better about my game,” Smith said. “The start of the season was frustrating for me for not being able to feel comfortable in net. But as of late, I feel as if I’ve turned the corner and I feel a lot more comfortable. I’m making a lot more saves because of it.”

If you’re a Coyotes fan, you remember Smith's remarkable play during the team’s run to the Western Conference finals a few seasons ago. Last season, he regained his goaltending touch in the second half of the season before going down to injury in a game in New York in March.

As of late, he’s 'Smitty' again. Since the start of November, he’s posted a goals-against average of 2.38 and a saves percentage of .929. Such numbers should be enough to win a lot of games.

BAVARIAN BRASH

Forward Tobias Rieder made his National Hockey League debut with the Coyotes on Nov. 1 in Washington. After arriving at the team’s hotel at midday, Rieder made an immediate impact later that night for a team that had dropped three straight games on an eastern road swing. He drew two penalties and scored the game-winning goal in a 6-5 victory. Not a bad day for a kid from the Bavarian town of Landshut, Germany, roughly 45 miles northeast of Munich.

Soccer is Germany’s top sport. But would you believe hockey in the federation isn’t far behind?

Photo by Getty Images.

“My dad played hockey,” Rieder pointed out. “He was a goalie and I would go to (most) of his games growing up. So I tried skating and I liked it right away.”

The young German even gave goaltending a try.

“I’ve always been a good skater, but I always wanted to play goalie,” Rieder said. “So I practiced as a player twice a week and I was a goalie once a week. I actually liked goalie better, but my dad wouldn’t let me play the position since there aren’t that many spots open on a team. He knew I was a great skater, so that’s how I became a forward.”

So how in the world (literally) does a kid from Bavaria end up playing for Kitchener of the Ontario Hockey League, half-way across the world from his hometown?

“I played professionally in Germany in the second division when I was 16,” he said. “A couple of months before the draft, a couple of people asked if I’d be interested in going over and playing. I talked to (former San Jose Sharks player) Marco Sturm about it and they all thought it would be a step in the right direction. I told myself if it didn’t work out I could always go back to Germany. I’m really happy I did that and I think it was a great step.”

He was drafted by the Edmonton Oilers and later traded to the Coyotes. And even as the draft approached, Rieder hadn’t an idea of Edmonton’s interest in his playing rights.

“Honestly, I didn’t even know. I was going to (attend) the draft and they picked me. That’s how it ended up. I had no clue who was going to pick me or if I was going to be picked at all.”

And what about that German obsession with soccer?

“Soccer wasn’t a big part of the family, but I started playing soccer around the same age as playing hockey. I was a forward there too and actually pretty good at it. So at the age of 12, I had to make a decision. I decided to stick with hockey.”

And even though his professional life these days is consumed with being a hockey player, it doesn’t mean he turned a blind eye to this past summer’s World Cup and Germany’s ascent to the top of the soccer world.

“It was crazy over there,” Rieder said. “It was fun. Everyone was out on the street when we won the World Cup. It was pretty exciting.”

Does that mean Rieder was one of the ones dancing in the streets after each victory?

“Most of the games I watched at the public viewings,” he said. “But I had to watch the final at home because I was too nervous. I just wanted to be by myself!”

BLUELINE TRANSITION

Photo by Norm Hall.

When the Coyotes made their run to the Western Conference finals in 2012, they did so with a veteran cast of shutdown defensemen. They might have been long in the tooth, but they were also long on experience. That season, they opened with close to 3,700 man games of experience across their six defenders. Over the past couple of seasons, younger players have stepped up and assumed regular roles. Michael Stone has made his mark as a regular. Oliver Ekman-Larsson has continued to develop into one of the league’s top-flight rearguards and Chris Summers and Brandon Gormley have waited patiently for their chances at regular playing time.

So too has second year defenseman Connor Murphy.

Earlier this month, Murphy was moved and paired with veteran Keith Yandle and has seen his minutes increase as he continues to soak up experience. His raw talent hasn’t gone unnoticed by his defense partner.

“I think you can lose track of how really young he is,” Yandle said. “He plays wise above his age. I don’t know if it has anything to do with growing up around the game, but his dad having been a player and now a coach, you can tell he’s been around the game for a long time. Just the way he prepares and comes to work every day.”

So what does Yandle see in his partner’s game?

“I think he doesn’t have much panic with the puck,” Yandle said. “When he has it on his stick, he’s not just slamming it up the boards or giving it back to the other team. He’s looking to make a play.”

Murphy’s father Gord played in the NHL and made it to the Stanley Cup Finals in 1996 as a member of the Florida Panthers. These days, he’s an assistant coach with the Philadelphia Flyers.

KNOW YOUR ROLE

It goes without saying the sport of hockey is the consummate team game. Wins are difficult to come by when just a couple of players aren’t buying into the collective plan of the squad. In hockey, a team’s top two lines are typically those called upon to provide the offense. The bottom two lines assume a bit of a different role and become a key ingredient for making sure defensive play is lock tight every night.

Photo by Norm Hall.

The Coyotes' fourth line knows its role as well as any threesome in hockey. The trio of Brandon McMillan, Joe Vitale and B.J. Crombeen have been effective throughout this young season. And when called upon, versatile Kyle Chipchura can slide into that role as well.

So what’s the secret to success?

“I think it’s a little bit hard work and having three guys that are tenacious on the puck,” McMillan said. “I think when you have three guys with the same mindset, it creates a bit of chemistry with each other.”

Are there other attributes that make them successful?

“The speed on our line is a huge factor in generating chances,” McMillan said. “We also take a lot of pride bringing energy to a game. When we are sitting on the bench and kind of seeing the momentum shift towards (the other team), coach looks to us to provide a good energy shift.”

Vitale has been part of that grouping all season. He arrived from Pittsburgh with the reputation of being an excellent face-off player. But there are other parts of his game that have greatly contributed to the team’s bottom line of success.

“The way he works extremely hard makes you want to work just as hard as him,” McMillan sidd. “When you’re on his line, you want to be there for him. He supports the puck and skates so well. He’s also a big frame and finds some big hits in places.”

ON THE ROAD AGAIN

McConnell

There’s something about doing the swing through Western Canada that brings out the hockey fan in me. First, there’s starting the day with a hot, black Tim Horton’s coffee. Then there’s the trip to the rink for the morning skate and the hoards of press that cover hockey like we do for baseball and football in the United States. There’s the trip to my favorite sushi spot for lunch in Vancouver. There’s the hush the falls over many of these rinks when play is in session. Yes, rinks in Canada can be very quiet. Fans watch the games, studiously, and analyze every shift and shot as if there will be a quiz on the way out of the arena.

There can also be the weather. Last season, after landing in snowy Edmonton, we were forced to take a detour to the team hotel due to a pile-up on the main highway. We stickhandled around snowy Alberta wheat fields dark and calm. I wondered; how can a land so sparse in population produce so many great players? I wondered if this landscape I was watching out the window was the same landscape of that in Shane Doan’s hometown of Halkirk, Alberta.

If you’re a fan of our great game (chances you are by reading this), you need to plan a trip through this part of the world because it’s as good as it gets.

EDITOR'S NOTE: Follow Matt McConnell on Twitter at @mattycoyotestv.

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