I can’t even begin to tell you how many times I’ve been asked if this year’s Coyotes team is for real. Is their amazing start legitimate or are they inevitably going to hit the wall like they did last year? And when will a go-to goal scorer emerge in the stat sheets? Luckily, I’m a solutions oriented kind of guy and I can actually use these questions to answer each other.
First of all, we’re a little over 50 games in so I think we can safely stop calling it a good “start” and acknowledge that what we’re seeing is actually happening. Teams don’t go through 50 game phases. And at 63 points they’re well ahead of the pace they set last year. That’s a number they didn’t hit until game 70 last season. Now that’s not to say the second half of the season won’t be tougher. Quite the opposite in fact – the margin for error is getting smaller every day and the level of intensity seems to rise with each face off. But what the team has accomplished thus far is not a product of luck; it’s a product of strong leadership, team chemistry, and a remarkable work ethic that seems to be contagious throughout the locker room.
Don’t get me wrong, the way last season ended was painful so I understand why fans are wary this time around. I was there, it was a brutal range of emotions - like being given free concert tickets only to find out the headliner is the Jonas Brothers. Then being kicked in the shin for good measure. But out of that experience, the organization grew stronger. The front office went out and brought in key pieces both on the ice and behind the bench to ensure such a scenario simply would not occur again. And the players who went through it last year can now use that empty feeling as fuel to do everything in their power to avoid going through it again. Every team says they need to have a strong second half. The Coyotes have actually felt the repercussions of not following through on it and that’s the kind of motivation that only experience can bring.
They’ll need that motivation every night in the coming months. The second half of the season is a grind - infinitely more grueling than the first half. Anyone in the league will tell you that (in fact, if they don’t, they probably won’t be in the league much longer anyway). As you reach the 40-50 game mark and beyond, teams are either realizing their potential and maximizing it by playing to their strengths or they’re figuring out that they’re about to be finished if they don’t start winning so they play desperate hockey. I’m not sure which is more dangerous, but they both make for more intense games where every goal is tougher to get and every single point counts. After a loss to Detroit earlier this season, Coach Tippett essentially said the Coyotes might need to use the game as a wakeup call for the second half. Seemed kind of harsh considering it was their first regulation loss in two weeks. But you know what? He was right. Take a look at the standings in the West right now - one loss and half the conference gains significant ground on you. The fact is, very few teams west of Toronto lose this year and, when they do, it’s because they’re playing each other (and even then, those games always seem to go to overtime so both teams get a point). Heading into January 23rd, the record of Western Conference teams in games against teams from the East this season was an eye-popping 100-59-19. Notice a bit of a discrepancy? It gets even more pronounced if you throw out the Sabres, who were undefeated against the West until this past week.
The point is, if you’re going to lose, you better learn from it and make the proper adjustments on the fly. Coach Tippett elaborated to me at practice that his comment was not simply because they lost the Red Wing game but because he had seen certain things out of his team over the previous few periods that simply wouldn’t work as the second half got into full swing. And this is coming from a guy who knows what he’s talking about. His track record of navigating teams through that second half and into the playoffs is remarkable. The Coyotes are in good hands.
Which brings me to the second question. There is no “go-to” goal scorer on the Coyotes this season. Sorry. At least not in the traditional sense of the term. But do you really want your team’s fate resting in the hands of one or two guys at a time like this? If they go into a scoring slump, you’re essentially done. The truth is, this team is forcing us to revisit the timeless sports debate of whether or not you can have success without one player who constantly outshines everyone else on offense.
Fortunately for Arizona hockey fans, the Coyotes are doing just that. When someone has an “off” night, someone else steps in and scores. The New Jersey game on January 14th exemplified the entire season. In the midst of their first three game winless streak of the year and facing the top team in the East with arguably the greatest netminder of all time playing some of his best hockey in recent memory, the Desert Dogs were able to parlay points from ten different players into a momentum swinging win. Three different players scored just their third goal of the season - timely goals against Martin Brodeur! Call me crazy, but I’d rather have clutch point production across the board than all the goals coming from one or two guys. Wins mean more to me than, say, Martin Hanzal
shooting up the NHL scoring lists. Maybe if I was related to Martin I’d feel differently. But I’m not, so I don’t. More importantly, the players on this team feel the same way. 15 different Coyotes have ten or more points. Only two teams in the NHL have more players in double figures.
I’ll leave you with a moviemaking analogy. If you take the time and effort to put together a solid script and then bring together a collection of decent actors to carry it out, you just might end up with a movie like The Hangover – one I’m pretty sure we can all agree is hilarious. But if you put all your eggs in one basket and build your whole movie around one big name actor, you could end up with Ben Affleck in Gigli. At which point you just end up leaving the theater crying like Nancy Kerrigan before the ‘94 Olympics. No one needs that. And do you know why this is? Because no one’s on top of their game all the time. Look at Matt Damon – great actor, amazing career. He’s also the main character in Stuck on You – a comedy about a pair of conjoined twins who struggle with dating as zany hijinx ensue. Not exactly Oscar material. Don’t get me wrong, if your go-to guy is Alex Ovechkin or Sidney Crosby, more power to you. Those guys just don’t have slumps. But they’re also probably not leaving Washington or Pittsburgh anytime soon either. If you’re building from the ground up – exactly what this organization has been doing – you may as well do it the right way. That means putting together a bunch of good players with something to prove. Players who work well together, have great locker room chemistry, and want to get better every game – not only for themselves but for the players around them. Throw in some defense and goaltending and you have the foundation of a winner. Right now it’s paying off.