Monday Morning Howl: Smith Strong, Coyotes Struggle

The Arizona Coyotes started last week in San Jose on Tuesday, and were lucky to earn a point, as they were outshot by the Sharks by a 42-19 margin en route to a 2-1 overtime loss on a Brent Burns power play goal just 19 seconds into the extra frame.

The Los Angeles Kings then came to Gila River Arena on Thursday night looking to bounce back from a 4-1 defeat to the Sharks at the Staples Center on the previous night. The Kings were able to score two late goals in the third period to come up with a 4-3 victory in their first matchup of the season against the Coyotes.

The Coyotes were back in action against Columbus on Saturday night and were once again lucky to get a point, as they allowed 60 shots on goal in a 3-2 shootout loss to the Blue Jackets.

A Busy Week

Following Saturday night’s shootout loss, the Coyotes will head to Columbus to finish out their home-and-home against the Blue Jackets. Arizona surely will be looking to tighten things up defensively against John Tortorella’s squad after Saturday’s 60-shot debacle. Puck drop is scheduled for 7:00 P.M. in Columbus (5:00 P.M. in Arizona).

Following Monday’s contest in Columbus, the Coyotes will pack up and travel to Chicago for a matchup against the Blackhawks on Tuesday night. Chicago has struggled with injuries lately, as both starting goaltender Corey Crawford and captain Jonathan Toews are on injured reserve. However, the Coyotes will still have their hands full with the dynamic duo of Patrick Kane and Artemi Panarin. Puck drop is scheduled for 7:30 P.M. in Chicago (6:30 P.M. in Arizona).

After a brief two-game trip through Columbus and Chicago, the Coyotes will return home for a two-game homestand starting on Thursday night against the Calgary Flames. Puck drop is scheduled for 7:00 P.M. in Glendale.

Arizona will finish its week on Saturday night with a matchup against the Nashville Predators. The Predators have turned things around since a poor October; they went 9-3-2 in November and have been buoyed by outstanding goaltending from Pekka Rinne, who was named the NHL’s first star for the month of November. Puck drop is scheduled for 6:00 P.M. in Glendale.

Smith Standing on His Head

For the most part, the Coyotes struggled badly as a team last week. They were outshot in all three of the games that they played and generated just six goals as they finished with a record of 0-1-2.

However, one Coyote who came to play in a big way was goaltender Mike Smith. He faced 42 shots on Tuesday night against the Sharks, but stopped 40 of them as he helped the Coyotes get a point in their 2-1 overtime loss. Smith struggled a bit on Thursday against the Los Angeles Kings, but didn’t get much help from the defense in front of him as Arizona dropped a 4-3 decision to their rival.

However, Smith would bounce back in a big way on Saturday night with perhaps the best performance of his career; he faced 60 shots against the Blue Jackets but stopped 58 of them, including all 10 he faced in overtime.

However, the Coyotes would ultimately lose in a shootout, and a frustrated Smith addressed the media after the game:

It’s definitely understandable that Smith would be frustrated by the fact that the team in front of him allowed Columbus to take 60 shots on goal, but it has to be even more frustrating that he couldn’t pick up the victory despite making 58 saves.

However, lost in all of Arizona’s struggles is the fact that Smith is playing perhaps his best hockey since the 2011-12 season. He’s in the top 10 in the NHL in save percentage and has singlehandedly kept the Coyotes in many of their games this season. Arizona needs to start playing better in front of Smith, or else his solid 2016-17 season could go to waste.

Vrbata Stays Hot

Although Arizona has struggled to score for most of the season, Radim Vrbata has done his best to keep the team competitive. He’s currently the team’s leading scorer with eight goals and nine assists and has proved that his subpar 2015-16 season in Vancouver was nothing but an outlier.

Vrbata is currently on pace to replicate the 60-point campaign he produced with the Canucks in 2014-15 and will earn himself a nice raise from the team at the end of the season if he’s able to continue his career revival.

Young Players Continue to Struggle

Coyotes head coach Dave Tippett is likely pleased to see that veterans such as Smith and Vrbata are having outstanding seasons in the desert. However, Tippett likely would be happier if he received some production from his younger players this year. Anthony Duclair has just a single goal in 23 games, while highly-touted rookie Christian Dvorak has just two goals in 19 games. Due to his struggles this season, Duclair has been the subject of numerous trade rumors, but general manager John Chayka has stated that he’s not actively shopping the struggling winger.

In any case, the Coyotes are going to need more from their younger players this season if they wish to have any hope of contending for a playoff spot.

Special Teams Showing Signs of Life

Although the team has struggled with defense and shot suppression over the past few weeks, one area in which the Coyotes have improved is on special teams. Earlier in the season, Arizona was in the bottom five in the league in both power play percentage and penalty kill percentage, but things have since turned around. The Coyotes have three power play goals in their last two games and have killed off 23 of their last 24 penalties.

In particular, Arizona’s penalty kill has been particularly effective on home ice. The team has been shorthanded 37 times at Gila River Arena this season, but they’ve surrendered just two power play goals. That’s good enough for a 94.6% home penalty kill, which is the highest such percentage in the NHL. If they can continue to succeed on the penalty kill while also getting their power play going, the Coyotes should be able to climb back into playoff contention.

Perlini Up, DeAngelo & Dauphin Down

With his team struggling badly, Chayka has unsurprisingly decided to shake things up. He sent defenseman Tony DeAngelo and center Laurent Dauphin down to the Tucson Roadrunners on Sunday, and also elected to call up left winger Brendan Perlini, who leads the American Hockey League in goals with 11 in 16 games.

Perlini, who was the team’s first-round pick in 2014, struggled last season in the Ontario Hockey League but has bounced back in a big way this season in Tucson. He possesses elite offensive skills, and, at 6’3″, has NHL-ready size as well. He’ll be a player to watch this week as he presumably makes his NHL debut, and could provide a spark to a Coyotes team that sorely needs one.

Pacific Division Roundup

After the first week of December, the San Jose Sharks and Edmonton Oilers are tied for first place in the Pacific. Here’s how Arizona’s other division rivals fared last week:

Anaheim Ducks (12-9-5)

  • Last week: 2-1-1
  • Analysis: The Ducks started the week strong with victories over the Montreal Canadiens and Vancouver Canucks, but stumbled over the weekend with back-to-back losses in Alberta to the Oilers and Flames. They’re clinging to the last Pacific Division playoff spot by a single point.
  • Player of the week: Ryan Kesler – 3 goals, 2 assists
  • This week: Wed vs CAR, Fri vs SJ, Sun vs OTT

Calgary Flames (13-13-2)

  • Last week: 3-0-1
  • Analysis: Don’t look now, but the Flames are 5-1-1 in their last seven and are tied with the Kings for a wild-card spot in the West. They received an unexpected boost this week, as Johnny Gaudreau returned from a broken finger much earlier than expected.
  • Player of the week: Sean Monahan – 2 goals, 3 assists
  • This week: Tue at DAL, Thu at AZ, Sat vs WPG

Edmonton Oilers (14-10-3)

  • Last week: 2-1-1
  • Analysis: The Oilers continue to get solid goaltending from Cam Talbot, and have continued to hang around in the Pacific Division. They’ll be a tough team to beat as long as they have Connor McDavid, who leads the NHL in points.
  • Player of the week: Leon Draisaitl – 3 goals, assist
  • This week: Tue at BUF, Thu at PHI, Fri at MIN, Sun vs WPG

Los Angeles Kings (13-10-2)

  • Last week: 1-1-1
  • Analysis: It appears as if Peter Budaj may be running out of steam in Los Angeles. The veteran allowed three goals on 23 shots on Wednesday against San Jose, and was pulled after the first period on Thursday after allowing two goals on six shots against the Coyotes. He then played in his 23rd consecutive game on Sunday and lost a 5-4 shootout decision to the Montreal Canadiens. With Jonathan Quick’s return still at least two months away, the Kings are going to need Budaj to return to the form that he’s showed for most of the season in order to remain in a playoff spot.
  • Player of the week: Anze Kopitar – 5 assists
  • This week: Thu vs CAR, Sat vs OTT

San Jose Sharks (15-9-1)

  • Last week: 3-0-0
  • Analysis: The Sharks have won six of their last seven, and have finally started to show some consistency for the first time this season. They’re an extremely talented team and will be very dangerous again in the playoffs this season.
  • Player of the week: Martin Jones – 3-0-0 record, 75 saves on 78 shots (.962 SV%)
  • This week: Wed vs OTT, Fri at ANA, Sat vs CAR

Vancouver Canucks (11-12-2)

  • Last week: 2-1-0
  • Analysis: Don’t look now, but the Canucks are playing solid hockey once again; they’re 5-2-1 in their last eight and have climbed back into playoff contention. They’re just four points out of a playoff spot and have managed to bounce back nicely from a season-threatening nine-game losing streak.
  • Player of the week: Henrik Sedin – Goal, 3 assists
  • This week: Tue at NJ, Thu at TB, Sat at FLA, Sun at WSH

The Coyotes have points in seven of their last 10 games, and have managed to get these points despite not playing their best hockey. If they’re able to play better in their own zone going forward, they should be able to ride Smith’s hot streak back into playoff contention. If not, it could be another long and fruitless year in the desert.