(Eds: Updates with more details and quotes. With AP Photos.)By JOHN MARSHALLAP Sports Writer
The Phoenix Coyotes have not played with the desperation needed for a team with such a low margin of error, at least not when they need it most.
The simple plays, the ones they’ve relied on the past three seasons, have become complicated, the extra pass costing them shots on goal.
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The team game has become scattered, many players pulling in opposite directions instead of tugging the rope as one.
And, on the most basic level, the puck isn’t going into the net.
The Coyotes are reeling and need to get back on track quick in this truncated season or their string of playoff appearances will be over.
”Right now we’re just not doing enough to win,” Coyotes coach Dave Tippett said Friday after the Coyotes went through a hard practice at Jobing.com Arena. ”A lot of guys try hard, but it’s what you do after you try hard that sometimes dictates wins.”
Effort has carried the Coyotes through the past three seasons without an owner, their gritty, stay-at-home style leading to three straight postseason runs, including the Western Conference finals last season.
Phoenix has played to its strengths only in spurts this season, leaving the Coyotes at the edge of the Western Conference playoff picture.
Right now, they’re in a stretch where nothing seems to be going right.
Starting slow, unable to score and chasing from behind in just about every game, the Coyotes have lost five straight after Thursday night’s 2-1 loss to Vancouver, which prompted a players-only team meeting that lasted nearly 25 minutes after it was over.
”Every single guy can be better at some point,” a grim Coyotes captain Shane Doan said after the team meeting. ”The only way this works here is because as a whole, we’ve been good. Individually, we have to be better and that’s all that matters. To a man, we’re accountable and it’s not working. We’re not good enough right now.”
The Coyotes’ recent funk began with a 3-0 loss at St. Louis on March 14, kicking off a stretch of 245 minutes, 32 seconds and 133 straight shots without scoring a goal. Phoenix was shut out three straight games for the first time in the franchise’s 33-year NHL history and four straight games on the road, including a 2-0 loss to Anaheim the week before, the first time that’s happened since the Oakland Seals went goal-less in four straight in 1967-68.
One problem during the streak has been slow starts.
The Coyotes have come out strong in a couple of games, but tend to taper off if a puck doesn’t go in right away. It happened in a 4-0 loss to Los Angeles when they were all over the Kings early before giving up a goal and again on Thursday after the Canucks did a good job of getting their sticks in the way to prevent shots.
Phoenix has been good at scrambling late in games, playing with the kind of desperation they need to have all the time, but haven’t been able to dig themselves out of early holes.
”When’s the last time we scored the first goal?” Doan said. ”It’s unacceptable.”
Making the game too complicated has been a problem as well.
The Coyotes’ style is to counteract and set up bodies in front, get rebounds and grind out goals.
Lately, though, Phoenix’s players too often have been trying to make the exceptional play instead of the simple one, passing up shots for an extra pass or move that often results in a worse shot or none at all.
The Coyotes also spent a good portion of Thursday’s game shooting right at Canucks goalie Cory Schneider, who had 33 saves.
Phoenix has three goals during its five-game losing streak.
”Funny thing is, you watch guys in practice, they come in and fire pucks under the bar, they score like crazy,” Tippett said. ”Then we get to the game and it’s just pads and chest is all we see.”
The Coyotes need to get it straightened out soon.
After the loss to Vancouver, Phoenix was 11th in the Western Conference and could dip further since its next game isn’t until Monday against Detroit. That leaves the Coyotes 17 games to get back on track before it’s too late.
”It’s no secret what we have to do to do better,” said center Antoine Vermette, who had Phoenix’s only goal against the Canucks. ”We talked about how this team’s been successful the last couple years. Every guy needs to be better and, collectively, things will take care of themselves.”
The good news for the Coyotes is they’ve been in this position before.
Following a late five-game losing streak last season, Phoenix won nine of its final 14 games and earned at least a point in 12, winning its first division title as an NHL franchise.
So the precedent is there and so is the talent, with the core of last year’s team back this season.