NEW YORK — If Mike Smith is lost for any length of time, the Coyotes’ time-worn tagline, Hockey The Hard Way, just might morph into Mission Impossible.
The Phoenix goalie suffered an apparent right leg injury with 7:34 to play in the third period of Monday’s 4-3 overtime loss to the New York Rangers at Madison Square Garden. Audio caught Smith screaming in obvious pain after Rangers forward Derick Brassard fell on his leg while Smith was down in a butterfly expecting a shot. At one point, Smith appeared to reach for his right knee.
On the replay, Brassard was clearly in the blue paint when defenseman Derek Morris made contact with him. It was unclear whether that contact or Smith’s pad caused Brassard to fall.
"It’s early," Tippett said. "I don’t even know anything about it yet. We’ll worry about that when it comes across."
Smith’s injury was the worst news of the night in New York. But the Coyotes added insult to that injury when they blew a 3-2 lead late in regulation after blowing a 2-0, first-period lead.
Dan Girardi beat backup goalie Thomas Greiss (seven saves) off a deflection with 3:28 remaining in regulation and Ryan McDonagh was all alone in front to tap in the rebound of Girardi’s shot for the game-winner just 1:56 into overtime.
"Some of the same things that have been plaguing us for a lot of the year, we don’t seem to be able to get a handle on them," Tippett said in summing up another blown lead. "The thing we talked about after the first period (was) we know they’re (going to be) coming hard. You’ve got to push back. When we turn pucks over and don’t compete physically, it allows the other team to turn it and that’s what they did."
The perils of a two-goal lead have become a morbid joke outside the Coyotes locker room. When Phoenix built that very lead in the first period, the question wasn’t whether they would squander it but rather how they would respond once they did.
For a while, it appeared the ultimate lunch pail guy, Kyle Chipchura, would give the Coyotes the response they needed. Chipchura notched his second point of the night on an odd-man rush late in the second period when he sent a centering pass to Antoine Vermette that caromed off the stick of Rangers forward Chris Kreider and past New York goalie Henrik Lunqvist.
The goal gave Phoenix a 3-2 and quelled the momentum the Rangers had built by rallying with two-second-period goals to tie the game.
Everything was going according to plan in the first period when Oliver Ekman-Larsson beat Lundqvist on the short side on a power play for his second goal in as many games. Chipchura then slipped a nifty backhand feed to Jeff Halpern as he crashed the net and Halpern’s low shot found the far side of the net for a 2-0 lead.
But the Coyotes didn’t get the third goal to "push the game along," as Tippett likes to say. They rarely get that goal. Instead, they morph into a turnover-prone, battle-shy team that runs completely contrary to the very principles that are being preached every day in practice.
Part of that is a lack of poise on their blue line, which never added that veteran presence it could have used at the trade deadline. GM Don Maloney wasn’t convinced they needed it but all four of the team’s recent losses suggest otherwise.
The Coyotes are playing with fire when their young defensemen log heavy minutes they ae not accustomed to playing. And veterans Morris and Keith Yandle are struggling to play key minutes with a lead. Both were a minus-3 on Monday.
But part of this failure to hold leads also falls on the forwards, who often get caught deep, lose one-on-one battles or turn pucks over in bad areas.
"It’s been the same script for the last four losses we’ve had," captain Shane Doan said. "We’re 7-4 (in our last 11) and all four have been the same thing."
It’s been noted previously that these Coyotes are an imperfect lot that will both electrify and mystify for the remainder of the season. It will require a healthy Mike Smith and enough scoring — from many sources — to overcome the inevitable mistakes that have defined this team over too long a period to deny that it is part of their identity.
With Smith, the Coyotes have a chance to hold off Dallas for the final playoff spot in the Western Conference — a lead that stands at one point after the Stars beat Winnipeg on Monday.
Without Smith, the outlook is bleak.
"He steals games for you and we know that. A lot of nights he’s our best player and we count on him a lot," Chipchura said. "Hopefully he’s alright. Greiss is a good goalie, too and he can do it, but Smitty’s a big part of this team."