In most cases, the All-Star break divides a season. Perhaps the exception is the NFL, which holds its’ All-Star game now the week before the Super Bowl. Traditionally, the NHL divides its season in terms of play before Christmas and after Christmas.
While the NHL All-Star game is slated for next month in Nashville, the first half evaluation of teams is underway. In the case of Arizona, the Coyotes played 33 of their 82 games to date. That’s not quite half of the schedule, but coaches like to place value of their team through the up-coming holiday period.
In their 33 games through December 22, the Coyotes are 16-15-2, and that represents a clear improvement of the course of events from last season. This mark includes a difficult slide of loses in eight of nine games from Dec. 1 to Dec. 17. That was broken by goalie Louis Domingue’s first NHL shut out over the Islanders last Saturday.
Domingue continued his strong play Tuesday night in helping the Coyotes to a 3-2 victory over visiting Toronto. Here, the rookie net-minder stopped on two-on-none while the Coyotes were short-handed, stopped Michael Grabner on a penalty shot with five seconds before the end of the opening period, and turned away 37 of 39 Toronto shots on goal.
For a hockey club which reached the nadir a year ago and barely showed any existence on its life-support monitor, the fact this team reached above the .500 mark at the Christmas break would be noteworthy. Yet, that could hardly be the case.
“We had a good start, but fell into a hole there for about six, seven games,” said captain Shane Doan after he led the Coyotes to the win over the Leafs with a three-point game. “We showed we’re a better than .500 team. But, momentum is so big in this game and we let it slip away.”
After the Coyotes defeated Ottawa at home Nov. 28, the team stood with a 13-9-1 record. Then, Arizona proceeded to drop eight of their next nine games and fell to 14-15-2. With wins over the Islanders and Leafs to close their pre-Christmas slate, the consensus around the locker room is both relief and a strong surge of energy.
If the Coyotes sense a feeling of momentum coming out their three-day, holiday break, the schedule on the other side is frightening. With home contests against the Pacific Division-leading Kings and the defending Stanley Cup champion Chicago Blackhawks, both before the start of the New Year, the Coyotes need to find a way to breathe life back into their game.
“It’s important for us to play well in front of the goalie,” said defenseman Connor Murphy, who scored the game-winner against the Leafs early in the third period. “After we hit that bump (losing eight of those nine), we’re trying to dig a little deeper. After that slump, we assessed what we did wrong, and that enabled to us to play with more of an edge.”
While the feeling persists among the participants that this is a better than .500 hockey club, the results are inconclusive. Here at the holiday break, they are eight points behind Minnesota, the leading Wild Card team in the Western Conference.
At the same time, the emergence of Max Domi, Anthony Duclair, Jordan Martinook and other younger players have made a difference. According to coach Dave Tippett, this difference has been, however, measured.
“At the break here, I would say things are very mixed,” Tippett said after the Leafs win. “We have a tendency to hang around in games. At the same time, I would say we’re a resilient group with room to grow. Though the younger players tend to do the little things right, there is room for growth in this team.”
Tippett and his intrepid band of ice warriors now test their mettle with games against teams directly ahead. After a New Year’s home game with Winnipeg, there is a three game road trip through western Canada with stops in Edmonton, Vancouver and Calgary. The real test continues through January with a seven game home stand, and the Coyotes are currently 9-5-1 on the Gila River Arena ice.
Against the Leafs Tuesday night, Doan tinkered with history.
Late in the first period and down 1-0, Doan took a rebound off of the back dasher board and flip in a backhander against Jonathan Bernier to deadlock matters at 15:16. Just 14 seconds later, Doan converted a pass from Kyle Chipchura into his eighth tally of the season.
Though Doan’s goals came in quick succession, these were off the franchise and NHL mark. Both are held by the Jets’ Deron Quint, and that’s when the franchise was located in Winnipeg. Quint scored twice within four seconds against the Oilers on Dec. 15, 1995. That is a Winnipeg/Phoenix/Arizona record and the NHL mark for the fastest two goals as well.