For the Arizona Coyotes, the conclusion of their home schedule Saturday night in the Gila River Arena was not reflective of the season in whole. With four games remaining, all on the road and elimination from Stanley Cup competition, the team and staff can take solace that the last home game should have been representative of the season.
With a solid 3-0 shut-out over the Washington Capitals before a sell-out crowd of 17,125 Saturday, the Coyotes proved they could raise the level of their game, and play with any team in the league. Looking in the rear view mirror, that did not happen every night. Now, team decision-makers and players have a summer to think about what was accomplished and what lays ahead.
For the Coyotes to gain a seat at the Stanley Cup playoff table, there needs to be execution in one critical area. Without that, coach Dave Tippett pointed out after the home finale, the Coyotes become just another team skating in sand.
“If you look at the successful teams, they all score more than they allow,” Tippett said. “For us to move to the next level, the goals against must improve.”
One way to address that dilemma is to stay out of the penalty box. Coming into the Washington game, the Coyotes were 27th overall in killing penalties, and last in the NHL in that category at home. With the three-goal differential from Saturday’s game, the Coyotes have scored 203 goals and allowed 230. Despite goalie Mike Smith’s third white-wash of the season and the 30th in his NHL career, the Coyotes need to tighten their game.
One way is greater puck movement, and gain the ability to move the puck quickly into the neutral zone. The first steps were taken this season with improved speed, and the addition of Max Domi and Anthony Duclair clearly brought that important dimension to the rink each game.
The Need For Greater Mobility
Going forward, the Coyotes’ defenseman need to be more mobile. While veteran Nicklas Grossmann brought strength along the boards, his limited mobility could not aid in gaining better puck movement. Over the second half of the season, Grossmann was scratched several times and a replacement, who brings greater mobility, would be an asset.
Still, the team made progress over the debacle of last season. While players expressed disappointment not qualifying for the playoffs, they took comfort knowing improvement was made.
“We came up short, and it didn’t happen,” said Domi referring to not making the playoffs. “Next year will be a different story. We’ll learn from this, and gear up for next season.”
Perhaps the “x” factor was the results turned in by Smith. The veteran goalie started on fire, won his first three games and allowed two goals in those three contests. Then, he strained stomach muscles, and played with that general injury for a month. Then, he submitted to surgery in early December. When he went back on the ice March 12 in Edmonton, Smith immediately returned to form, and shut out the Oilers. Including his shut-out Saturday against the Capitals, Smith went 5-2 in games from March 12 to April 2.
“It was important for me just to come back,” Smith said. “I needed to show the fans, the organization and my teammates I could still play. We’ve improved by leaps and bounds, and if we can show this kind of improvement next season, the pieces will fall into place.”
For now, the Coyotes have road games in St. Louis, in Chicago, in Nashville and San Jose left to set the bar for next season. There’s no time like the present to work on allowing fewer goals, and improve the overall structure of their game.
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.