SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. — If you’re wondering who snuck in and replaced those grinding, goalie-dependent Phoenix Coyotes with the current offensive juggernaut, you’re not alone.
“It’s weird because it’s not like we made a lot of changes,” Phoenix forward Radim Vrbata said. “If you’d have said this could happen last year, people would be like, ‘yeah, right.’ “
Dave Tippett’s Phoenix clubs have always been defined by their defense, their structure and their goaltending. The Coyotes depended on getting early leads and then sucking the air out of opponents with disciplined, hard play.
And if opponents somehow grabbed the early lead?
“You might as well turn off the television set and go get a margarita,” general manager Don Maloney said. “We weren’t coming back too often.”
Through roughly the first quarter of the 2013-14 season, all of that has changed. Entering Tuesday’s NHL games, the Coyotes had the second most goals in the league (73), trailing only the team that hoisted the Stanley Cup last season, the Chicago Blackhawks (78).
Phoenix (14-4-3) has three wins in games it has trailed after two periods and four wins overall when trailing at some point in the game. The Coyotes have even managed three wins in games where they had to rally from a two- or three-goal deficit.
“There’s a confidence that we can come back no matter what the situation,” captain Shane Doan said.
There is a confluence of factors that has led to this unprecedented offensive outburst, but let’s stop for a moment and admire just what is happening on the ice in Glendale, and in stadiums around the league.
Phoenix is averaging 3.29 goals per game when you factor in the extra time the team has played (eight overtimes or shootouts). Since moving to the Valley for the 1996-97 season, the Coyotes have never, repeat, never averaged better than three goals a game. The only time they came close was in the 2005-06 season when they scored 246.
“We don’t rely on one or two guys. We have depth. We play within our structure but we have guys who finish plays,” center Antoine Vermette said. “It’s a lot of fun to be a part of something like that.”
Sure, but why is it happening? Here are four reasons:
1. A better blue line: The most cited reason for the Coyotes’ offensive improvement is the maturation of the puck-moving defensemen. Phoenix defensemen have 18 goals and 59 points, second only to Chicago in production from the back end. The defensemen’s ability to carry the puck, start the breakout with good, quick passes or get pucks to the net in the offensive zone has had a residual effect on the rest of the lineup and how opponents defend it. Oliver Ekman-Larsson and Keith Yandle are known for these abilities, but Derek Morris was having a big offensive season before getting injured, and Michael Stone leads all Phoenix defensemen with six goals.
2. A real power play: The rise of the long-maligned Phoenix power play has coincided with a rise in goals. The Coyotes were ranked fifth in the league with the man (or two-man) advantage before Tuesday’s games at 22.4 percent, with 17 goals in 76 opportunities. Vermette said new assistant Newell Brown has altered the structure of the power play and emphasized getting shots early to push momentum, even if it’s off the rush or the initial entry. Mike Ribeiro’s presence has certainly impacted the way defenses approach the Coyotes, but so has the play of Yandle and Ekman-Larsson at the point. That has opened up just a little more space for a healthy Shane Doan to score a team-high six power play goals. Doan and Martin Hanzal have given the Coyotes consistent net presence.
3. Balanced scoring: Eleven players have at least four goals through 21 games. That’s the kind of balance coaches dream about, although Maloney is still in the market for another top-six wing to further complement the current pieces.
4. A solidified center position: Adding Ribeiro had a domino effect on the rest of the lineup. It allowed Hanzal (team-high 18 points) to resume the role for which he was best-suited as the team’s No. 2 center, and it allowed Vermette to slide into the No. 3 center spot — a luxury most team’s would kill to have, given his strong, two-way game and his acumen in the faceoff circle. But don’t overlook the importance of the addition of Jeff Halpern. He doesn’t log big minutes, but he’s given the team a veteran presence and a solid defender to round out the most important forward position.
There is, of course, the impact of ownership stability on players’ psyches to consider as well, but not all is peachy in Glendale. Phoenix is still being outshot by more than five per game — a product of too many turnovers, poor defensive zone coverage, a finesse-based defensive corps and poor structure as opponents attack through the neutral zone. The Coyotes have allowed 66 goals, tied with Winnipeg for the sixth-worst mark in the league.
But these are problems the coaching staff believes it can solve with a little more time.
“I thought the Tampa game (A 6-3 win) was probably as good as we’ve been all year managing the puck and doing the right things,” Tippett said. “Hopefully, we’re moving in the right direction.”