Though participation in the Stanley Cup playoffs remain out of reach for the Arizona Coyotes, this is the time to develop competitive habits. While teams out of contention like to say politically correct things, many times the level of play is not as intense as other parts of the season.
Now in the closing weeks of the campaign, the Coyotes are faced with the prospect of developing a sense of value and purpose. Among those elements of the game worth addressing is the ability to shut down opponents. The capability to play with a third period lead often determines a thin line between success and failure.
To exacerbate the Coyotes situation, here’s a team, prior to Tuesday night’s home game with Edmonton, that is scoreless in their last 127 minutes, and coach Dave Tippett admitted he is in the process of “giving opportunities and looks to people.” In the end, an altruistic approach this late in the season may not address the fundamental principles of character and how the game should be played.
In that regard, the Coyotes’ execution in the critical third period Tuesday at home against Edmonton was “the half-empty, half-filled” syndrome. Though the team maintained a one goal lead through the final period and eventually defeated the Oilers 4-2 before 13,408 in Gila River Arena, the Coyotes’ play was not considered crisp and sharp.
For the record, the two teams managed seven shots each on net in the final period, and Tippett admitted goalie Mike Smith “cleaned up a few mistakes.” Still, the ability to heighten their level of concentration, to firmly execute clean puck movement, fore-check with a purpose and cut down on turnovers, represent aspects of the game good teams do well in critical situations.
“We sat back too much in the third period,” said winger Tobias Rieder, who scored the game-winner late in the second period. “We had guys back too deep, and that’s something we need to clean up.”
While Smith is noted for stick-handling and his ability to quickly send the puck into the neutral zone, the veteran net-minder found himself mostly confined to his crease. In a rapid succession and holding to a 3-2 lead in the third period, Smith was forced to stop Zack Kassian in front and moment later, Taylor Hall had Smith beat, but Hall’s shot went wide to the left side.
“We talked about sealing off in our end,” Smith said after the game. “I thought we were able to do that, and also get the puck out quickly.”
If the Coyotes went back to the drawing board for the third period, the team seemed to stepped aside for the return of defenseman Oliver Ekman-Larsson. Out for the past six games with a shoulder injury, Ekman-Larsson returned to the ice for the first time since March 7 against Colorado. Playing 20 minutes, 50 seconds, he managed two shots on goal, but picked up an assist on Alex Tanguay’s goal at 5:38 of the opening period, the first goal of the game. Ekman-Larsson’s presence seemed to lift the consciousness and spirit of his teammates.
“He’s so smooth out there,” said Tippett. “Nice to have him back. Overall, we played all right, but could have played much better.”
That meant playing tighter and smarter with a one goal lead, and the knowing that strong execution in the neutral zone represents a significant lesson for the Coyotes to learn.
Notes From a Night At The Rink
With the victory, the Coyotes now have a 23-game point streak (19-0-4) against Edmonton. The Coyotes have not lost to the Oilers in regulation since Jan. 25, 2011. … Arizona was 5-0-0 against the Oilers last season, and are now 24-2-4 against the Oilers under Tippett. … Smith is now 13-1-1 lifetime against Edmonton. … Defenseman Zbynek Michalek became the second player in Arizona history to play in 600 games for the franchise. … Captain Shane Doan passed Glen Wesley (1,457) for 22nd place on the NHL’s all-time list of games played. Doan is now third among active players in games played behind Jaromir Jagr (1,617) and Jarome Iginla (1,463).
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.