Preview: Panthers conclude five-game road trip in Arizona
TV: FOX Sports Florida
TIME: 9 p.m. ET
GLENDALE, Ariz. — Arizona Coyotes coach Rick Tocchet keeps searching for a way to turn around a club that lost its first 11 games and hasn’t gotten much better since then.
Pittsburgh Penguins coach Mike Sullivan’s advice to his former assistant coach: Keep looking for those answers, because your hockey team is counting on you to find them.
“We’ve talked a lot about staying the course and sticking with your convictions,” Sullivan said.
However, in a season filled with disappointments for the Coyotes, their 4-2 loss to the Penguins on Saturday night in which Pittsburgh scored twice in the final 15 seconds might have been the most discouraging yet. It was a loss the Florida Panthers can relate to.
The Panthers (12-16-5) wind up a five-game road trip in which they have won only once by playing the Coyotes (7-23-5) on Tuesday night.
The matchup features two teams that certainly aren’t in a holiday mood in December. The Panthers have dropped three straight and seven of nine during this busy month, while Coyotes have lost six in a row and nine of their past 10.
The first-year head coaches for both teams are struggling to explain what happened in the third period of their last game.
The Panthers were tied 2-2 at Vegas with less than eight minutes remaining Sunday — after leading 2-0 — when the Golden Knights scored three consecutive goals, all while outshooting Florida 20-2 in the third period. Panthers coach Bob Boughner almost couldn’t believe what he was seeing.
“Our third period was probably, obviously, the most disappointing period for me in a long time, maybe the season,” Boughner said.
Similarly, Tocchet loved how his young team surged back to tie the Penguins after trailing 2-0, only to have Pittsburgh defenseman Olli Maatta’s slap shot beat goaltender Antti Raanta for the game-winning goal with 14.5 seconds left. Raanta promptly broke his stick over the crossbar in a show of frustration that no doubt every one of his teammates could understand.
“He played well, and he feels bad,” Tocchet said. “It’s adversity, and he’ll go back in there again and give us a chance again. That’s the life of a Coyote right now, we have to build off these experiences.”
Tocchet must be wondering how many of these experiences his team must go through. The Coyotes have lost 28 of 35 games overall, and since a dominating 5-0 victory over the New Jersey Devils on Dec. 2, they are 0-5-1.
“It’s been a season like that, and it’s going to build character,” Tocchet said. “We’re going to weed this thing out and we’re going to build character on these losses. But they’re tough — I tell you, they’re tough.”
Tocchet, a Penguins assistant when they won the Stanley Cup the past two seasons, talked before the game with his former boss, who could offer only words of encouragement to a man he obviously respects.
“When you’re a leader of a group like a hockey team, the players are taking their cues off you as the head coach, and you’ve got to make sure that you send the right messages and you have to be consistent with it,” Sullivan said. “Toc has strong convictions on how he thinks the game should be played. He’s a very good communicator. I think if anybody is up for the challenge that’s in front of the Arizona Coyotes, it’s him.”
Tocchet certainly hasn’t resisted change. On Saturday, for example, he switched winger Max Domi to center — a position he hadn’t played since junior hockey — and did it without warning on the day of a game. Domi drew three penalties but scored his first goal since Nov. 20.
“They’re young kids, and (you have to) get them in tough moments and see how they do because that’s the only way you’re going to build it around here,” Tocchet said of a team that has an average age of 25 years and 27 days, making it the NHL’s youngest.
Tocchet would like to get some home-ice momentum going. The Coyotes are 3-10-1 at Gila River Arena, and they have dropped the first two games of a five-game homestand.
Boughner would like to get right winger Radim Vrbata going on a familiar ice surface to him. Vrbata has only four goals in 27 games after having 20 goals and 55 points with Arizona last season.
However, Panthers defenseman Mike Matheson said it has been difficult for the whole group to find its way lately.
“It’s tough to keep your confidence up when you’re not getting W’s,” he said. “The last three games, we’ve been struggling to generate consistent zone time.”
The Coyotes can relate to that after being outshot 81-50 by Tampa Bay and Pittsburgh in the past two games.
Arizona is expected to stay with Raanta (4-8-2) in goal because Tocchet wants him to get plenty of work after Raanta sat out three different stretches with injuries previously this season. James Reimer (6-9-4) is expected to start for Florida.
“We’ll find a way in Arizona,” Reimer said following the loss at Vegas.