Silver linings playbook: Coyotes regaining identity

BY foxsports • February 8, 2015

GLENDALE, Ariz. -- The Coyotes didn't follow up their 3-1-1 road trip the way they hoped. Two goals in two games led to a 0-1-1 homestand.

But Arizona has established the kind of identity since the All-Star break that coach Dave Tippett all season had sought from his undermanned team.

"Other than a couple hiccups here and there, there's lots of try in our group," Tippett said. "We have to have that if we're going to be competitive."

The Coyotes are going to make mistakes with a youth-laden lineup and they are going to struggle to score goals, especially without injured forward Mikkel Boedker. But the work ethic that both GM Don Maloney and Tippett have set as a baseline for this team has been present in nearly every game since the break. 

Poor goaltending and poor defending sidetracked the team in Ottawa and the team failed to generate many chances or manage the puck well against Carolina, but the Coyotes have put forth good efforts against Philadelphia, Toronto, Montreal, Columbus and Detroit as the education of their young players continues in the toughest school in the hockey world.

"It's a great learning (experience)," center Antoine Vermette said after Arizona's 3-1 loss to star-laden Detroit on Saturday. "If you look at (Detroit's) lineup, they have some good veterans that I'm sure these young guys have seen playing when they were young... playing at a high level."

Tippett has repeatedly noted the energy that younger players such as Tobias Rieder, Lucas Lessio and Andrew Campbell have brought to the lineup. The lineup only figures to get younger as the trade deadline nears and Maloney pulls the trigger on a couple of those long-expected deals with an eye toward the future.

COYOTES at BLACKHAWKS

When: 6:30 p.m. Monday
Where: United Center, Chicago
Records: Coyotes 19-27-7, Blackhawks 33-18-2
Season series: Chicago leads 1-0
Injuries: Arizona F Mikkel Boedker (splenectomy) is out indefinitely. F Martin Hanzal (upper body) and F Joe Vitale (upper body) are on injured reserve and at least a week away from returning. Chicago F Kris Versteeg (left metacarpal fracture) and D Trevor Van Riemsdyk (fractured patella) are on injured reserve.
Quick facts: Chicago F Kris Versteeg is expected to return to the lineup some time this week. Versteeg hasn't played since suffering a fractured hand in the Winter Classic on Jan. 1 against Washington. ... D Trevor Van Riemsdyk (knee) has begun light skating but isn't due back in the lineup until March. ... Chicago has the NHL's best penalty-killing unit at 88 percent. ... Blackhawks RW Patrick Kane is tied for the NHL lead in points with 59 (26 goals) and has six gals and 11 points in his last seven games. ... Coyotes G Mike Smith is expected to play both games of this road trip.

Maloney was in Boston on Saturday and Sunday, presumably scouting.

It will be up to the Coyotes veterans to lead the way during this transition period, while the younger players bring the get-up-and-go. But it's also helping the cause that goalie Mike Smith has quietly put together a string of five terrific starts in six outings since the All-Star Game.

Aside from the Senators game, Smith has posted save percentages above .920 in his five other starts since the break: Philadelphia (.929), Toronto (.960), Columbus (.968), Carolina (.976) and Detroit (.920). It's the kind of roll he was on last spring before a knee injury at Madison Square Garden on March 24 sidelined him for the rest of the season.

"I feel good about my game," Smith said succinctly.

The youthful energy and Smith mix will be put to a stiff test on this two-game road trip against two serious Stanley Cup contenders; Chicago on Monday and St. Louis on Tuesday.

In the three games (all losses) the Coyotes have played this season against the Blackhawks and Blues, they have been outscored 18-2, including a 6-1 thrashing in Chicago that sent the team into the All-Star break with a mandate for change. 

"We should have it fresh in our mind what happened the last time in Chicago," Tippett said. "That should be plenty of motivation for us."

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