The Arizona Coyotes have put up a tenacious fight against a heavily-favored Colorado Avalanche team in the first round of the NHL Playoffs. But some of the players who looked indispensable in their qualifying round series against the Nashville Predators have disappeared in the first three matchups against Colorado. Specifically, the Coyotes need more from captain Oliver Ekman-Larsson and prized trade acquisition Phil Kessel.
Both players looked fantastic in the qualifying round, notching a goal and three assists each, good for a point-per-game average. But against the Avalanche, neither has tallied a point yet. In a Davidic attempt to overcome Goliath, the Coyotes will not succeed without more offensive output from these two players.
Ekman-Larsson Needs More Finish
The captain has hardly been a non-entity in the first round, averaging over 21 minutes per game, maintaining a plus-two rating, registering 10 total hits and four blocked shots, and adding five shots of his own. He’s a force on the ice, showing many of the qualities that convinced the Coyotes to appoint him the first new captain in 15 years in the wake of Shane Doan’s departure.
The one thing Ekman-Larsson has not yet shown is his offensive prowess. Gone are the three points in two games that gave his team two consecutive wins to finish the series against the Predators. Though he mustered five shots, according to Natural Stat Trick, he has yet to generate a high-danger scoring chance (iHDCF) in the entire postseason. He’s generated an anemic 0.35 individual expected goals (iXG), continuing a down season overall in that category (he had just 6.14 in the regular season).
Of course, as a defenseman and power play quarterback, Ekman-Larsson can contribute with assists as well as goals, and he does have three, two primary and one secondary. But his 30.77 individual point percentage (IPP) — a representation of the percentage of his team’s points a player contributes to while on-ice — is already down from his 40.54 percent mark in the regular season. And that mark was the second-worst of his career to begin with. Perhaps the captain is still feeling the effects of a crushing hit he endured from Austin Watson during the qualifying round.
Whatever the reason, the Coyotes certainly need more from Ekman-Larsson. They do not have enough offensive firepower to win this series without his help, particularly with the potent offense on the other side. It is a down season overall for the defenseman, especially on the power play, where his team ranks 21st of 24 teams this postseason. If ever he wants to break out of his funk, now is the perfect time, as the series hangs 2-1 in the opposition’s favor.
Kessel Needs to Return to Form
Once upon a time, when his then-Pittsburgh Penguins were winning back-to-back Stanley Cups, Kessel scored 45 points in 49 games in two consecutive playoff runs. Had he not been a teammate with Sidney Crosby, he might have won the Conn Smythe Trophy in either or both of those performances.
Unfortunately, in these playoffs, Kessel has only those four points he scored in the qualifying round. Since then he has been a minus-one, and despite mustering 10 shots, he hasn’t looked especially good. Head coach Rick Tocchet took notice, limiting his ice time to 12:01 in Game 3, which the Coyotes won.
Inconsistency is hardly a new phenomenon in Kessel’s career, but he has had some of his best-ever performances in prior postseasons. Even now, he has an IPP of 80 percent and six iHDCF. He has been nowhere-near invisible. But he has not contributed enough in the first round, and time is running out quickly for him to do so.
Coyotes Need More from Stars
The Coyotes have had breakout performances from unexpected sources, like the line of Lawson Crouse, Christian Fischer, and Carl Soderberg, affectionately known as “the Big Line.” But such underdog performances only last so long in the grueling NHL postseason. For any team to thrive under these circumstances, they need their stars to show up. So far, Taylor Hall and Clayton Keller have. But Kessel and Ekman-Larsson need to follow suit or the Coyotes’ first trip to the postseason since 2011-12 will be a short one.
Stephen Ground is a veteran of over three years at THW, focusing on the St. Louis Blues, NHL goaltending, and the annual World Junior Championship. He is the co-host of the Two Guys One Cup Podcast, a hockey podcast focused on the Blues.