Just after the commencement of play, the Arizona Coyotes survived their first coach’s challenge of the season.
Shortly thereafter, a second challenge was beaten, and the Coyotes hope the stars continue to align.
First, captain Shane Doan scored on a back-hander to open the season at 8:49 of the opening period Saturday night against the Philadelphia Flyers. That’s when Flyers’ coach Dave Hakstol challenged the goal, believing that Christian Dvorak crashed into goalie Steve Mason. The challenge was overruled, and the goal stood.
Then, Arizona goalie Mike Smith smothered a puck in the crease and the Flyers thought the disc crossed the goal line. Again, the call went in the Coyotes’ favor, no goal, and the team was vindicated twice during the opening 20 minutes of their season.
Still, there was plenty of room for anxiety.
The Kids Still Have Stuff to Learn
With five rookies in the Arizona lineup, things were unsettling. In the end, lessons were learned in a 4-3 overtime victory over the Flyers before a sell-out crowd of 17,125 in Gila River Arena, which can only serve to strengthen character.
The essence of their game, quick and spirited play, served well throughout the contest, but an uneven execution and a slight letdown with a two-goal lead gave coach Dave Tippett a measure of concern. If their opener is any indication, this could be an improved team, that emphasizes a clear, up-tempo game. At this point, there are risks.
“That’s the way we want to play,” defenseman Oliver Ekman-Larsson, who scored the game-winner at 3:12 of the overtime session, told THW. “We want to bring the speed to each shift, and like I said, that’s the way we want to play.”
The game-winner for Ekman-Larsson was his 22nd since the 2013-14 season, and that’s the most among all NHL defenseman.
This approach, with a haphazard consequence, may not be all that beneficial. While the addition of five rookies brings young legs and swiftness, the result can also be compromising. Going forward, the key element of his team will be to harness the ability to play with speed, but also to use the factor of anticipation.
Here, Tippett spoke about players he helped coach for Team North America in the recent World Cup tournament. In particular, he cited the overall play of the Flames’ Johnny Gaudreau as a model for his team.
“With the North American team, Connor McDavid was very fast and so was Gaudreau,” said Tippett. “But Gaudreau combined speed with the ability to anticipate. That’s what we want from our young players. The key is how to combine these elements into execution.”
Chychrun Learning Curve
If Tippett saw some things which were encouraging and conversely other things which represented a challenge, rookie defenseman Jakob Chychrun could be the poster child. Exhibiting great speed and a heavy shot, Chychrun was also caught out of position on the Philadelphia goal that tied the game. Flyers’ forward Matt Read went around Chychrun and put a back-hander in behind goalie Mike Smith at 4:36 of the final period. That deadlocked the teams until Ekman-Larsson’s game-winner.
Earlier, Chychrun, a first-round pick in 2016, and 16th overall, displayed a blistering slap shot from the right point that slammed off the back board. The puck slid out to Martin Hanzal, who deposited the puck behind Mason at 14:17 of the opening period. That gave Arizona a 2-1 lead late in the opening period.
Still, the learning curve for Chychrun, and his fellow rookies in their first NHL game is rather prodigious.
“What I learned is that you have to play a complete game for 60 minutes,” he said. “You need to stay in position and stay with the pace of the game. Plus, keep your mistakes as low as possible.”
Not a bad observation. Now, Tippett and his staff hope to smooth out the rough edges and make their transition to the NHL game as seamless as possible.
On the Road Again
While the victory was soothing, this win was also critical.
That’s because the Coyotes essentially open their season on the road. Engaging in eight of their first 11 games away from the desert, the team now embarks on a six-game swing through Eastern cities. First stop is in Ottawa this coming Tuesday night and that’s followed by games in Montreal, in Brooklyn against the Islanders, at Madison Square against the Rangers, in Newark against the Devils and a return match in Philadelphia.
“This will be good test for them,” Tippett said in reference to his rookie players. “We’ll play in some buildings in which it’s hard to win. These guys will be tossed in the fire and we’ll see what happens.”
The Coyotes come off this road trip on Saturday, Oct. 29 against the Colorado Avs in Gila River Arena.
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.