Coyotes Need to Play ‘Smart Hockey’

Through the first month of the NHL season, the roller-coaster ride by the Arizona Coyotes remains ever-exciting.

The maddening leap from the abyss of a pitiful performance to much better execution from game-to-game is as painful for coach Dave Tippett to endure and it is for the fans to support. Still, the Coyotes have put together  a modest two-game winning streak and, coming into play this weekend against the Ducks in Anaheim and at home with the Islanders, Tippett’s clarion call remains better puck management.

Plus, tightening defensive play front of goalie Mike Smith appears an ever-present priority.

playing with a lead

For the Coyotes, playing with a lead in any game is unusual. On Tuesday night, they held advantages of 2-0 and 3-1 over the Toronto Maple Leafs at home and managed to squeeze out a 3-2 victory before 14,202 in Gila River Arena. The win comes after the Coyotes defeated the Capitals on Sunday night and had to do so with a six goal effort.

After goals from Sam Gagner, Martin Erat and Antoine Vermette created a 3-1 lead deep in the second period against the Leafs, Tippett decided to send two forwards in and play aggressive hockey. At the start of the third period, he changed to one-fore-checker in deep and two forwards hanging back near the blue line.

“When you play stronger defensively, especially late in a game, it boosts your confidence,” said defenseman Keith Yandle. “We went to a 1-2-2 there in the third period and (Tippett) tells wants he wants to do. He’s good at recognizing the game and making adjustments.”

Keith Yandle (Christopher Hanewinckel-USA TODAY Sports)
Keith Yandle (Christopher Hanewinckel-USA TODAY Sports)

If Tippett is guiding from from an acute eye, players need to respond.

For the first period against the Leafs, the Coyotes controlled the game, constantly beat Toronto skaters to the puck and killed a 5-on-3 disadvantage. Still, the two, two-goal lead shrunk and that, for Tippett, was “a red flag.”

“We have to manage the puck better,” he said after the Coyotes raised their season mark to 5-6-1 and out of a Pacific Division basement tie with the Oilers. “For us right now, it’s more about execution. Sure, we want to play smart but it’s about executing smart.”

“Smart” does not mean penalties at the most inopportune time.

Holding that 3-1 lead late in the final period, defenseman Connor Murphy was called for slashing in front of his net with under seven minutes remaining. Cody Franson needed only 20 seconds to wrist in a rebound of Phil Kessel’s shot and closed the gap to one goal. After the Coyotes held off the Leafs for the final six minutes,  the consensus in the Coyotes dressing room was a sense of relief.

moving in the right direction

“I thought we did some things better and this was a step in the right direction, said Vermette. “The two-man penalty kill was important and that gave us confidence. The goals against is not where we want that to be  and we need to be more sound defensively.”

Perhaps the greatest beneficiary of the recent surge was Smith, who allowed two goals in a game for the third time this season. After allowing six goals in the opener against Winnipeg and eventually benched, Smith says the difficult start is in the rear-view mirror.

“I feel I’ve turned the corner,” Smith said winning his third game of the season. “Over the past few games, I felt it was coming. I thought we deserved to win this game and when you deserve to win, it feels good.”

If the Coyotes are feeling good about themselves and seem more confident than during any part of this young season, they have the Pacific Division-leading Ducks in the Honda Center this Friday night. While Tippett continually likes to say “it’s very difficult to win in this league,” another test of the Coyotes’ mettle should come this Friday night in southern California.