When it comes to team expectations, don’t ask Arizona Coyotes’ coach Dave Tippett for his take. Flatly refusing any discussion on the matter, Tippett declines to be caught in the hype and hysteria of fortune tellers.
As his team heads into the All-Star break, that was Tippett’s assessment of the Coyotes. While Tippett is more concerned with “the process,” and emphasizes progress and production, he told The Hockey Writers, “we’re starting to see growth from our younger players.”
That was evident in the Coyotes’ 3-0 victory over Vancouver Thursday night before 11,203 in Gila River Arena. The win was the team’s third straight and fourth consecutive victory at home. That marked the first, three-game winning streak this season, and what several hope is a change of fortune.
“I don’t think this is a turning point,” said goalie Mike Smith, who recorded his first shutout of the season, and the 31st of his NHL career. “The team did good things in front of me and that’s been the case for the past few weeks. We’re getting scoring from younger and veteran players and, as a group, the team is playing better in front of me.”
The win leaves the Coyotes with a season mark of 16-26-6 and 34 games to play. With 38 standings points and last in the NHL’s Pacific Division, only the Colorado Avs have a lower season record. At this point, the Coyotes’ chances of qualifying for the Stanley Cup playoff are nearly zero. Given that reality, Tippett would rather keep track of younger players and chart development.
“(Against Vancouver), we had five rookies in the line-up, and we’re starting to see them grow,” Tippett said. “That’s what we want. We want to see growth as an organization. With a few wins here, we’re feeling better about ourselves.”
After dropping nine straight between Dec. 17 and Jan. 7, the Coyotes, collectively, have picked themselves off the mat. Starting with a 2-1 overtime victory over the Islanders in early January, Arizona has a 5-4 record into the All-Star break and a push of momentum heading forward
“We’ve started to stabilize parts of our game,” Tippett added. “We now have continuity at the center position and our defense has stabilized. Our game is coming together. When that happens, you see results.”
With just over 30 games remaining, it may be difficult to ask a team, which could dress between five and seven rookies on any given night, to rocket through the Pacific Division. Coming into the break, the Coyotes are 14 points behind Los Angeles and Vancouver for the final playoff slot in the Western Conference.
If there is a minor consolation, this lays in the fact the Coyotes know good things lay ahead. With younger players gaining experience, and veteran players like Radim Vrbata, Oliver Ekman-Larsson, Martin Hanzal and Shane Doan guiding the way, Tippett and other decision-makers realize there is pain before gain.
Smith, named to the Pacific Division All-Star team, warmed up for the honor with his first shut-out since last April 2. That’s when he white-washed Washington, 3-0 at home.
In posting the shutout Thursday, Smith experienced the oddity of facing no shots in the first period. In fact, the first record Vancouver shot on net transpired 28:12 into the game. That was the second time in franchise history the Coyotes allowed no shots in a period. Previously, Tampa Bay had no shots during a period on Dec. 2, 1999.
“When you face around 40 shots, that keeps you in the game,” Smith told The Hockey Writers. “With little work, this is much more of a challenging game. You have to stay mentally sharp. In fact, it was pretty boring there for a period and a half.”
Smith credited the defense and back-checking forwards for keeping the shot total low. For the game, the 34-year-old turned away only 19 shots, and seven in the final period.
Smith joins the Sharks’ Martin Jones as net-minders for the Pacific Division for this Sunday’s All-Star contest in the Staples Center.
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.