Despite wins in two games of the last three, there remain legitimate concerns. Though the Arizona Coyotes have picked up four points in their last three contests coming into play at Toronto Thursday night, there is one ominous sign that lingers on the horizon.
The number of shots the Coyotes allow on goalie Mike Smith is alarming. It’s become a rarity, these days, that Smith faces less than 40 shots through the course of a game. The lack of a sustained offense, plus a porous defense, have kept the Coyotes from climbing the Pacific Division ranks.
In defeating the Red Wings in Detroit on Tuesday night, Smith turned away 37 of 38 shots and the Red Wings managed to outshoot the Coyotes, 18-4 in the third period. All of which does not bode well for Smith, who has regained his swagger from the 2011-12 postseason. That’s when he led the Coyotes into Western Conference finals and lost to the Los Angeles Kings, the eventual Stanley Cup champions.
“Mike was real solid,” coach Dave Tippett told The Arizona Republic after the Detroit win. “That’s the way he’s been for most of the season. He’s been outstanding. The bend but don’t break, and hopefully, we can give him a little less work a few times.”
The Need To Improve
For that to happen, the Coyotes need to raise the level of their defensive game. The key point is the ability to swiftly and intelligently move the puck into the neutral zone. Two additional elements of their game need improvement.
Turning the over puck over in inopportune times is a significant issue. Though recent losses have resulted in one-goal games, the Coyotes’ penchant for giving the puck away tends to land in Smith’s net. With veteran defenseman like Oliver Ekman-Larsson, Alex Goligoski, Luke Schenn, Michael Stone and Connor Murphy anchoring the blue line, turnovers should concern Tippett.
As well, the Coyotes’ forecheck needs to improve. To be fair, this is not a big, physical team and is populated by players of average height and weight. Center Martin Hanzal is the tallest, at six feet, five inches, and attempts to screen opposing goalies. Physical players, like captain Shane Doan and Jamie McGinn cannot carry the entire load.
Injuries A Factor
Because of injuries, notably a broken leg sustained by Brad Richardson and a broken hand suffered by Max Domi, the Coyotes have acquired essentially replacement players. These are players destined to aid in the short term, but not in long run. Newly arrived Josh Jooris and Peter Holland, both centers, will not likely supply the hard, crisp forechecking the Coyotes need.
If the Coyotes are to be serious playoff contenders, the defensemen and forwards must protect Smith. At this point, the 34-year-old netminder is playing at a strong level but is being left vulnerable. Smith cannot be left to the mercy of a defense that fails to clear the puck in front of him, turns the puck over frequently and fails to generate strong movement through the neutral zone.
Mark Brown is a former sports editor for daily newspapers in the Philadelphia and Cincinnati markets. He was named Best Sports Columnist, honorable mention 2004 by the Associated Press Society of Ohio. He is a contributor to major daily newspapers, including the Chicago Sun Times, Philadelphia Inquirer, Honolulu Star-Bulletin, Milwaukee Journal, Arizona Republic, Nashville Tennessean and the Associated Press. He was a Featured Columnist for bleacherreport.com and covered the Arizona Coyotes.