If last season’s debacle was the nadir of Dave Tippett’s coaching career, this season appears as the complete opposite.
In identifying the 2014-15 season as “something I never want to experience again,” Tippett now characterized this version of the Arizona Coyotes as “fun and enjoyable.”
At this point, Tippett hopes the final two months of the season remain fun and enjoyable. By early April, he and his intrepid band of ice warriors will have either a sense of accomplishment or despair to show for their collective drive and grit.
When the NHL schedule resumes Tuesday night after the All-Star break, the Coyotes are hanging precariously to a post-season position. Before their Tuesday date with the Los Angeles Kings at home, the Coyotes are in third place in the Pacific Division, just two standing points ahead the of the Ducks and Canucks. As well, they sit a mere three points behind the second place Sharks and eight points behind the Pacific Division-leading Kings.
While the contest against the Kings could be considered the biggest game of the season, the reality is that veteran coach Tippett is planning for the long haul. Without using the word “consistency,” Tippett made a declarative point after practice Monday afternoon in the Gila River Arena that his club has to play with a heightened sense of urgency each night.
That’s because the game now changes, the intensity level increases and mistakes are greatly magnified. That point was clearly recognized around the Arizona dressing room.
“Throughout the season, the game changes,” captain Shane Doan said Monday after practice. “You feel a change after the exhibition season, you feel a change after about 10 games, you feel another change around Christmas and after the All-Star game. Usually around mid-February is when the intensity picks up. Every possession counts, and you can’t fake playoff intensity.”
If Tippett hardly detected a heartbeat at this time last season, there is now a robust sense of energy. Players returned from the All-Star break with renewed confidence, and the Monday practice was swift and purposeful.
“Lots of enthusiasm out there,” Tippett said after practice. “It was good to see everyone back in good spirits. We talked where we are at the break, and about what we want to accomplish.”
At the same time, Tippett paused to reflect on the Coyotes’ current state of affairs. At this point last season, there was no hope for post-season participation. Now, Tippett sees a clear change in direction and commitment.
“From a positive standpoint, we have regained our identify,” he said. “Our identity has everyone involved, and we’re like family.”
Regarding the game itself, Tippett said the Coyotes need to clean up a few things. High on the list is the team’s ability, or, at times, inability to kill penalties. Coming into the Kings game Tuesday night, Arizona is 28th in the NHL in killing penalties and last in the league at home in killing penalties. Skating five-on-five, Tippett pointed out, “we’re okay.” At the same time, the Coyotes have surrendered nine short-handed goals (one into an empty net) and that’s last in the NHL.
To be fair, these numbers are now in the past, and the Coyotes recognize the task ahead. This is a band of intelligent hockey players and know their shortcomings. If they are able to address the significant issue of improvement on the penalty kill and increase their power play efficiency (from the current 17th in the league), the future could be bright.
“Everyone is getting ready for the big push,” said goaltender Louis Domingue. “Like all the other teams, we’re trying to shake the rust from the break. We have two big division games ahead this week, and have to take advantage of the schedule.”
After the Kings game, the Coyotes remain home Thursday and entertain the Blackhawks. On a back-to-back set, they travel to Anaheim Friday and that important date with the Ducks.
Glancing at the schedule, Domingue overlooked a two more division games on the horizon. That’s a home date with Vancouver the next time the Coyotes step on the ice after the Honda Center. That’s a week from Wednesday and then a home contest with the Flames on Feb. 12. As the stretch run begins, these four division games should foreshadow what the Coyotes are saying now about their sense of commitment and promise.
Tale of Two Goalies
On Monday, Domingue was named the NHL Rookie-of-the-Month for January. The 23-year-old native of St-Hyacinthe, Que. posted a 6-3-1 mark with a .925 save percentage and a 2.20 goal against average with one shutout.
“This is a tremendous honor, and there are so many around the league that deserve the award,” he said. “While this is nice, I can’t think about it. We have to move forward and compete.”
Domingue stepped into the Coyotes line-up on Dec. 17 against Columbus, and played in 17 of the Arizona’s 19 games since that contest. Replacing veteran Mike Smith, Domingue has a season mark of 9-5-3 and a 2.31 goals against average.
When Smith went down, he posted a 10-9-1 record for 22 games, a 3.06 goals against average and one shutout. His save percentage was .901.
At this point, Smith is far from rejoining his teammates. Skating only four times over the recent All-Star break, Tippett said Smith is nowhere near participating in a full practice. Out since undergoing stomach surgery in mid-December, Smith was expected to miss two months. That might be longer, and his return to the ice, both for practice and games, is now uncertain.
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.