GLENDALE, Ariz. – Don’t look now, but the Coyotes are in last place in the same Pacific Division they won just 11 months ago. The situation isn’t dire yet, but the signs sure are.
Twenty games into the season, Phoenix is committing the same mental errors it did in the first week of the season. Twenty games into the season, there is still no sign of that water-tight defense that defined the club’s run to the Western Conference final last year. Twenty games into the season there is no sign of the consistency Mike Smith displayed throughout the 2011-12 season. Twenty games into the season, it’s not easy to imagine a playoff berth.
To make matters worse, Radim Vrbata is walking around in a protective boot, Martin Hanzal is on the shelf with an injury that’s a mystery to anyone outside the club, Kyle Chipchura is the team’s most dependable offensive threat and Steve Sullivan isn’t making anyone forget Ray Whitney.
When your fourth line is your most consistent line over a four-game stretch, you’ve ether miscast your personnel or you’ve got big issues with your top nine forwards.
“Not enough push, not enough doing with the puck and not enough doing without the puck,” coach Dave Tippett said of his top three lines. “Other than that, they’re fine.”
Anybody feeling good about that three-game set against Anaheim that opens on Saturday? The Ducks are playing as well as any team in the NHL outside Chicago. The Coyotes? Four games shy of the season’s midpoint, we still have no idea who they are because they haven’t established an identity.
“We play like it for spurts, but we just haven’t played like it for a consistent stretch of games or for 60 minutes in a game,” captain Shane Doan said. “It seems every year at the beginning of the year it takes us a little while to get our feet under us and try to get rolling. This year is obviously going to be that kind of challenge.”
You would think the Coyotes would have learned some valuable lessons about defensive-zone coverage in western Canada after blowing leads against Edmonton and Calgary. But on Minnesota’s first goal, defenseman Michael Stone lost track of Wild forward Jason Zucker, who redirected Matt Cullen’s pass past Smith for a 1-0 lead just 1:35 into the game.
Then defenseman Derek Morris, in his first game back from an injury, got caught pinching Pierre-Marc Bouchard at the blue line, giving Minnesota a 2-on-1. Keith Yandle did all he could to react to the quickly developing play, but Doan was a step behind on the backcheck and Dany Heatley beat Smith with a good shot off the short-side post for a 2-0 lead.
When Mikkel Boedker lost a puck battle in the corner early in the second period, Heatey converted again, and the Coyotes were playing catch-up the rest of the night despite a pair of fluky-bounce goals.
“I think our group is a little tired tonight. You could see there wasn’t the same zip in it,” Tippett said. “That being said, you still manufacture a win.
“The other night in Vancouver, we competed so hard on every loose puck. We started out in the first period (Thursday) not so bad, but then we made a couple of crucial errors on simple rush reads that were in the back of the net, and then we’re chasing.”
Tippett doesn’t know when he’ll get Hanzal and Vrbata back. Both skated before the team did Thursday morning, but Vrbata left the locker room before the team Thursday night with his left foot in a protective boot. The absence of those two players certainly doesn’t excuse the Coyotes’ defensive lapses, but over time, you can’t have two of your biggest offensive threats out of the lineup and not feel it.
“We’re a no-excuse type of team,” Yandle said. “We’ve got to find ways to win. It doesn’t matter who’s in the lineup.”