GLENDALE, Ariz. — The Coyotes watched Sunday night from center ice as their 2011-12 Pacific Division championship banner appeared from behind a black cover. It hung crooked, somehow appropriate for a franchise that last year put together the best season in franchise history amid a seemingly endless ownership saga and rumors of relocation.
As nice a moment as it was for the Coyotes and their fans, it was just as fleeting. Following a 6-4 loss to the Blackhawks, the Coyotes are off to an 0-2 start and have little time to look backward in a lockout-shortened season.
“We have to get a win in the win column,” Coyotes goalie Mike Smith said. “This is not the way our team wanted to start.”
The Coyotes, from general manager Don Maloney on down, made it abundantly clear during a whirlwind training camp that they needed a strong start. A week of camp isn’t particularly conducive to that, but every team is in the same position, and the ones that sharpen up quickest will likely emerge as the strongest playoff contenders.
In that regard, it looks like the Coyotes have a little work to do. They can still start strong, though, with four of their next five games at home.
“We know what we’ve been successful at, and we have to get back to it,” Coyotes captain Shane Doan said. “It’s two games, but it doesn’t make a difference; we’ve got to find a way to be ready for the next one, get ready to be good, be better.”
Coyotes coach Dave Tippett expressed particular disappointment with his team’s defensive start, chiding his team for “critical errors” that led to breakaways and easy chances for the Blackhawks. Smith, meanwhile, put the blame on himself.
“Unacceptable goaltending in both games,” Smith said. “I know it’s early in the season, it’s a weird season, but that’s no excuse for it. It’s just a letdown to the whole team. You score seven goals in two games, you should win both of those.
“Obviously we need to clean up our game in some areas, but it starts with me.”
Tippett spread the blame more liberally but agreed that his goaltender must improve. Smith has now given up 10 goals in two games. The six he gave up Sunday matched his single-game high from last season, when he gave up that many just twice.
Smith’s frustration with his start — albeit through just two games — showed when he gave up his sixth goal of the night to the Blackhawks’ Dave Bolland. After stopping Bolland’s shot as he slid across the crease, he lost sight of the puck as it went up in the air, and it eventually fell in just behind his glove, at which point Smith smashed his stick against the post.
“That’s kind of the way it’s going for me right now — you make a save and it ends up in the back of the net,” Smith said.
Things might not be going that way were it not for the defense in front of him. While players won’t let it be an excuse, the lockout-induced rust and minimal preparation have been especially evident on defense, and it could continue that way for a while. That might just be a reality until teams find a groove.
Tippett, however, would accept no such reality Sunday. Uninterested in condoning early-season sloppiness, Tippet did all but breath fire from the podium after Sunday’s loss.
“You can say, ‘OK, this is just the way it’s going to be, there are going to be lots of mistakes,’ but you know what? Let’s do something about it,” Tippett said. “Don’t just talk about it; do something about it. That’s what bothers me.
“Why would we say, ‘Oh, that’s just going to happen?’ Let’s not let it happen.”
That’s exactly the attitude the Coyotes — and the rest of the league, for that matter — must take when faced with playing 48 games in 99 days. There’s less time to admire the accomplishments of a season passed and less time to correct the issues of the present.
To be clear, an 0-2 start is hardly a death knell. Far from it. But string together enough two-game losing streaks in this shortened season and you’ll be looking at a tough road to the playoffs.
The mood in the Coyotes’ locker room conveyed a clear sense of urgency to get going in the right direction — and quickly. It also offered no hint of a team interested in giving much thought to last season’s triumphs or this season’s early failures.
“There are still a lot of games left,” Smith said. “In a 48-game schedule, you can’t dwell on two losses. There’s going to be ebbs and flows through the season, but we’ve got to get our act together here.”