GLENDALE, Ariz. — Less than two minutes into Saturday’s much-anticipated matchup with the Blackhawks, the Coyotes had already been caught with two right defenseman on the ice, taken two penalties and allowed road-weary Chicago to score on a 5-on-3 power play to establish exactly the kind of momentum it was hoping for at the back end of a seven-game road trip.
“That’s the top team in the league, and we come out and start like that?” Coyotes coach Dave Tippett said after his team’s disappointing 5-2 loss at Jobing.com Arena. “It’s just unacceptable. It’s not how you win in this league; it’s not how you win on a consistent basis.
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“That’s a real good lesson for our team on how hard you have to play, how smart you have to play if you’re going to be an elite team. You saw tonight we’re not there yet.”
There is no shame in losing to Blackhawks, who just completed their annual circus trip with a 6-1 record and a six-game winning streak that has them atop the NHL standings with 44 points.
It’s the manner in which the Coyotes lost their third straight home game (0-2-1) that is perplexing. Phoenix continues to make the same mistakes — untimely penalties, turnovers, poor defensive-zone coverage — that are leading to the same poor starts.
When the first-period carnage was complete and Chicago had a 3-0 lead on Andrew Shaw’s soft backhander and Niklas Hjalmarsson’s bullet from the point, Phoenix had been outscored 28-16 in the first period this season.
“I don’t know what it is,” said forward Rob Klinkhammer, who scored one of the Coyotes’ two second-period goals to raise the specter of the team’s 10th rally from a deficit for a victory. “It’s too good of a league. You can’t battle back. We had some luck and we got some timely goals early (this season), but you can’t do that all season, especially against good teams like Chicago.”
It was unclear who was at fault for the defensive-pairing gaffe on the first goal, but the second goal was clearly one goalie Mike Smith should have stopped. Brent Seabrook’s shot from the point pinballed around the slot before Shaw corralled it, but Shaw’s attempt was soft and slow yet still snuck between Smith’s skate and the post for a 2-0 lead at the 9:18 mark of the first period.
“We needed to get stabilized, and the second one really puts you down,” Tippett said. “We needed him to be a real good player in that first period to absorb some of that real push from them, and it didn’t happen.”
Smith appeared to have a good look at Hjalmarsson’s goal, which came off a defensive breakdown, but before you go heaping all of this on the goaltender, remember that the Coyotes are getting outshot on a nightly basis, they are turning the puck over too much and they still don’t have a defenseman who is hard to play against, which means they’re losing a lot of puck battles in their own zone that lead to scoring chances for their opponents.
“This is a team thing,” Tippett said. “This isn’t a Mike thing.”
The Coyotes will have two days to sort things out before they hit the road for a four-game trip through Western Canada and Denver. Tippett credited his team for fighting back Saturday to make a game of it, but the praise was less than heartfelt after the outcome.
“You can push back after you’re down 3-0, but let’s start the game on time,” he said. “It’s so foreign from how you want to play if you’re going to be able to compete with a team like that. It’s so foreign to what you have to do. It’s almost inconceivable we could do it, but we did.”