Little steps before giant steps.
Despite dropping a 2-1, shootout loss to the Carolina Hurricanes before 12,649 in the Gila River Arena Thursday night, the Arizona Coyotes demonstrated there is life of a horrid start. Rising from a combination of marginal goaltending, inconsistent scoring and a plethora of giveaways from the start of the season, the Coyotes have slowly begin to show movement on their life support monitor.
Two factors, which contributed the Coyotes’ demise, appeared be addressed with vigor over the past few weeks.
Completing a franchise-record eight-game road trip by winning three of their last four, the Coyotes confronted demons of the past with tenacity.
First, the penalty killing, one of the worst in the league, began a gradual improvement. Plus, goalie Mike Smith, one of the root causes for the disaster, is now playing with renewed confidence.
The result has been a clear improvement from the past months of futility and hope for the future.
“Perhaps our best penalty-killer right now is Smith,” said right-wing Dave Moss, who scored the Coyotes’ only goal at 6:38 of the opening period against the Hurricanes. “He’s making big saves and playing with much more confidence.”
For Smith, improvement has been duly noted. Save a 7-2 defeat in Ottawa on Jan. 31, Smith has allowed just three goals in his last three starts, including the Carolina game. Several key saves against Carolina kept the Coyotes in the game and showed Smith could return to his glory days of three years ago.
new life for Smith
“I feel good, solid,” he said. “Right now, I’m playing for the moment and helping keep our team in games.”
If Smith is playing with greater resolve, the penalty-killing also shows signs of life.
Coming into the Carolina game, the Coyotes continued to languish near the bottom of the league. They were 27th overall in the league, 29th at home and 15th on the road. According to coach Dave Tippett, one reason provides, at best, a cursory reason.
“(Defenseman Andrew) Campbell has made a huge difference,” Tippett said. “His solid play back there with (Connor) Murphy is strong. Together, they are taking quality minutes and producing.”
Campbell, at 6-4 and 210, was recalled from the AHL Portland Pirates on Jan. 27 and immediately added stability to the blue line.
“When we were in Montreal (a 3-2 win on Feb. 1), one skater kept buzzing and Campbell stayed with him, whacking him and keeping from the net,” Tippett said. “After a while, the guys gave up and that’s the kind of work we lacked around the net. It’s good to see a guy like that get a chance.”
For his part, Campbell, who turned 27 in this past Wednesday, has patiently waited.
Originally a third round pick of the Kings in the 2008 draft, Campbell, the native of Caledonia, Ont., languished in the Kings’ AHL Manchester affiliate for six seasons, including three games with the Kings last season. Now, he has a regular shift with the steady, improving Murphy and that combination on the blue line has solidified a previously shaky penalty-killing unit.
The results of a better penalty-killing effort was evident against Carolina.
For the game, the Coyotes killed off four straight, including a double-minor to Lauri Korpikoski for high-sticking at 9:07 of the opening period and a Mike Smith, delay-of-the-game penalty at 6:53 of the second period.
Now, the Coyotes have picked up standing points in five of their last six games, and Tippett and his intrepid band hope they can see at least a flicker of light at the end of the tunnel.
hockey meets NASCAR
Prior to Thursday night’s game between the Coyotes and Hurricanes in the desert, NASCAR driver Kyle Busch stopped by the Gila River Arena to exchange jerseys.
Meeting outside the Coyotes’ dressing room two hours before the contest, Busch took a Sedona Red Arizona sweater from captain Shane Doan, and Doan donned a NASCAR, flame-retardant top, embossed with Busch’s corporate sponsors.
Afterward, Busch, who has won 141 races in his NASCAR career, said he found similarities between hockey and the world of the volatile oval.
“Sure, both are fast and at times, pretty violent,” he pointed. “Look, in both sports, we put guys on the wall.”
Over the past decade or so, NASCAR has jumped to the top of spectator sports and enjoys a nearly unprecedented rapport with its fans.
“We’re the fastest growing sport in America,” he said with an obvious pride. “I think our sport is unique in drawing fans. People can cheer for a certain driver, a certain team, a certain make or model, or even a certain pit crew or sponsor.”
Above all, Busch smiled, he looks forward to the Daytona 500 on Saturday night, Feb. 14 (televised nationally on FOX) and start of the 2015 season.
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.