The month of December will tell us a great deal about the Coyotes. Because of the compressed Olympic schedule, they have 15 games in December - which essentially boils down to a game every other day. It’s not just the number of contests though, it’s the quality of the opponent involved. Thirteen of those 15 matchups are against Western Conference opponents. Want more drama? Seven of those are against teams from the Pacific Division. Things are going to get interesting in a hurry, and the last couple weeks have shown me that the Coyotes are up to the challenge.
Consider this: despite suffering a two-game losing streak through frigid Alberta leading up to Thanksgiving, the team is 7-3-1 in its past 11 contests. That's pretty good no matter how you cut it. Then throw in the fact that the majority of those games were played without Kurt Sauer, Ed Jovanovski, or Zbynek Michalek on the blueline. All of them were out. Looks a little better doesn’t it?
Now let’s be fair here - every team goes through injuries. In fact, it feels like it’s an even bigger epidemic this year than usual. For whatever reason, it seems like two or three major stars go down around the league on a weekly basis at this point. And while no one is going to mistake the Coyotse defenders for Evgeni Malkin or Jonathan Toews, these are the guys that make this team go. Sauer was a huge defensive presence last year and I’d like to think we’re at the point where I don’t have to rehash the value of Z or Jovo at this point. But beyond all of their individual contributions, you have to weigh the fact that this is a lineup that is built to rely heavily on its defensemen. Head Coach Dave Tippett has structured the team in a way where it’s going to be in every game - even if it’s having a collective “off” night - because of the team defense they play. If you don't believe me, go watch tape of the Anaheim game. Beyond that, guys like Z and Jovo also help lead the transition game, which directly affects the offense. Think it’s a coincidence that the team put up five on Dallas in their second game back?
When I evaluate where this team is, I try to compare it to last year’s group. That may or may not be fair but, to this day, no one has been able to convince me that the 2008-09 Coyotes wouldn’t have made the playoffs if not for that mind-numbing stretch after the All-Star game. And this year’s team is clearly better - more experience, more direction, just more talent in general. As of Sunday night, they were six games above .500 - something that happened exactly never last year. Maybe most importantly, we’ve gotten our first taste of how this team responds to adversity.
|Daniel Winnik |
Last year, they simply couldn’t handle injuries because they lacked enough depth and experience to plug guys in without suffering too much of a drop-off. Ultimately, that was their undoing. This year, we’ve already seen players like Keith Yandle
, David Schlemko
and Sami Lepisto step up and embrace the extra ice time. Plus, we’ve seen forwards like Daniel Winnik and Vernon Fiddler take their defensive efforts to an even higher level. Overall, this team has shown the ability to stop the bleeding on a number of occasions as it hasn’t allowed a losing streak to drag on past two games at any point thus far. A lot of credit has to go to the coaching staff on that one, but some clearly has to go to the players for believing in the system and each other, then taking that belief and turning it into actual points in the standings.
The losses at Edmonton and Calgary heading into Thanksgiving had the potential to be a lot more damaging than they ended up being. Not only did they come against teams that Phoenix may very well be fighting with in April for postseason spots, but they posed the real distinct threat of putting the team in a major scoring slump. I always laugh when people are worried that this team’s not producing enough offense just because they had two goals in a game. As long as they’re winning, do you really care? They’re built to win a lot of 2-1 and 3-2 games. If they’re doing it, what’s the problem? But struggling to score at all is a different story. Being snake bitten around the net is contagious and can spread through a team quickly. Getting just one goal collectively over two road games is never a good thing. Yet the Coyotes once again showed that ability to bounce back by putting up eight goals against established netminders over the next two games on the way to two straight victories. Now that streak is up to four consecutive wins. That shows me something.
What’s more, they were able to take down two Pacific Division opponents in the process. Dallas is a truly well-rounded team, dangerous in every facet of the game. Yet the Coyotes are already 2-0 against the Stars and don’t have to deal with them again until Jan. 31. They just seem to play at a different level against that team right now. Maybe some of it is because they want to show
Tippett’s old team that they made a mistake when they let him go (um, why exactly did they let him go again?) and that he’s better off in Phoenix. It’s like dating someone new and having everything go great, then running into that person’s ex at the store - you can’t help but want to show the ex how much better things are now (well, that and you want them to generally feel like an idiot, but that‘s an entirely different story). Don’t get me wrong, I believe Coach Tippett is honestly focused on winning one game at a time and that he considers the Dallas games important not because they’re his former employers but because they’re division games with long lasting implications in the standings. But, deep down, he’s got to feel pretty good that his new team is 2-0 against his old team. If he doesn’t, he should.
Meanwhile, the win over the Ducks may have been even more impressive. Anaheim is notoriously gritty and, for as unspectacular as their overall record is at the moment, they’re actually one of the hotter teams in hockey right now. And we all know they’ll make a strong push here at some point - they’re too good not to. In fact, they might already be doing it. They had won three straight before the Coyotes hit Orange County and Corey Perry is on fire right now, registering at least one point in 19 straight games. Whether you follow hockey closely or not, I probably don’t have to tell you that a 19-game point streak is borderline ridiculous.
In spite of all this, the Coyotes were able to come out on top, running their record against the Pacific Division to 6-3. And now Michalek and Jovanovski are back. Plus, guys like Schlemko and even Shaun Heshka have gained some experience and we now know they can step in and play increased minutes with confidence in the future if needed. Shane Doan
talked after the Anaheim game about how this team has the ability to really go on a run at some point and do some damage. December just might be coming at the right time.