GLENDALE, Ariz. – Mathematically speaking, the Coyotes are still in the hunt for the playoffs. By any other measure, the underdogs who won the Valley’s heart last season were done as soon as they left the ice following a 4-0 loss to San Jose on Monday at Jobing.com Arena.
There were ill omens before the Coyotes were even introduced. Goalie Mike Smith, who had been so spectacular since returning from the injured list, was scratched with a lower-body injury apparently sustained in Sunday’s practice.
“He just came in this morning and said he couldn’t play,” coach Dave Tippett said. “We didn’t think it would be an issue, but it ended up being an issue.”
Things only got worse from there.
Former Coyote Raffi Torres set the tone early, flattening defenseman Keith Yandle with an open-ice hit about 10 seconds into the game, then elbowing Yandle in the head in front of the Coyotes net, leading to coincidental minors after Yandle retaliated with a slash.
Just like that, the Sharks were the aggressors, and the Coyotes were reacting instead of instigating plays.
Phoenix did manage some early pressure, but Mikkel Boedker hit a post, and no one else could finish a chance. The Coyotes won few puck battles thereafter, San Jose scored three second-period goals, and the follow-up act to the franchise’s best-ever season came to an unexpectedly easy end.
“They picked up their game, and we just didn’t match the intensity that they played with in the second,” captain Shane Doan said in a decidedly somber tone that was perfectly understandable.
There wasn’t enough fight for a team whose season was on the line, and there didn’t seem to be enough concern about that deficiency. That is surprising for a club that has built its identity on a never-say-die attitude.
“We’ve had too many times where we’ve had too many players on our team just get through the game, and it’s frustrating,” Tippett said. “We need some players to make a positive impact on the game; not just be in a sweater.”
Tippett vowed that there would be no quit in his team over the final six games of the season, but the blunt truth is that there is no realistic chance of extending this season as the club heads out on a three-game gauntlet through St. Louis, Chicago and Detroit, likely needing a 6-0 finish to make the playoffs.
There will be plenty of time over the final two weeks to write the epitaph on this season, but there are multiple factors to which even the most casual fan can readily point.
Smith wasn’t the Smith we saw most of last season, and when he finally was, he came up lame when the Coyotes could least afford it.
The Coyotes might have contributed to his lackluster performance by riding him too hard and too often when other Western Conference teams recognized the need for two goalies in a lockout-shortened slate.
General manager Don Maloney’s normally impressive offseason touch landed a couple lumps of coal, as Matthew Lombardi could never stay healthy long enough to establish his presence, and Steve Sullivan could never score enough to warrant his. Just as important, the Coyotes missed Ray Whitney’s deft scoring touch and his blunt locker-room approach on a club that, outside of Doan, seems to be lacking leadership.
It was heartening to believe that the Coyotes could still make a playoff push after sending Lombardi, Sullivan and Torres packing at the trade deadline. But that initial infusion of youthful energy that the club’s AHL players provided eventually subsided, and Phoenix was left with the reality of a lineup rife with minor-league talent.
“I think there’s always a way to win,” Tippett said. “What frustrates me is when you have situations where you don’t think that we’re playing as well as we can. We’ve got too many players that are just taking up a spot right now.”
In two weeks, the Coyotes can begin addressing those issues while eight other Western Conference teams chase something far more desirable.