On a seven-game homestand, the Arizona Coyotes started off strong.
First they beat the Nashville Predators with a resounding 4-0 shutout victory. Then they followed that up with four more goals against the Edmonton Oilers, who they beat 4-3 in overtime at Gila River Arena.
After that the offense dried up.
They lost in overtime to the Detroit Red Wings, losing a 2-0 lead in the final period to take home a 3-2 loss in extra minutes. Then it was a 2-0 shutout loss to the New Jersey Devils–whom they outshot handily through three periods, but couldn’t seem to figure out from an in-net perspective.
Then came a 2-1 loss to the Buffalo Sabres and now a 3-1 loss–including one empty net goal by veteran Patrick Marleau–to the San Jose Sharks. After scoring eight goals across two games, the Coyotes have only scored four goals in the subsequent four contests. That’s a dried up offensive spell, and it has to be solved as the club heads into a difficult back end of their 2015-16 season.
Part of it can be attributed to intangibles such a puck luck, or hard-to-quantify talent such as goaltending and defensive ability from the other team. A large chunk of it comes down to execution. As the Coyotes head into their final game of the seven-game homestand, the execution will need to improve in order to finish off on a high note.
“We played terribly in the first, and that probably cost us the game,” admitted forward Brad Richardson in the aftermath of the Sharks loss. “I thought we played pretty good the second half of the game, especially into the third… but they’re a good team, they’re tough to come back from when you’re down two.
That start was unacceptable.”
Head coach Dave Tippett preached execution during the team’s post-game, as well. His criticisms were stretched far and wide, starting with the entire team’s first period and heading into the final minutes of play for youngsters Max Domi and Anthony Duclair.
“We got better as the game went on, after the first period,” suggested Tippett.
When you talk about getting better as the game went on, though, that usually means that you weren’t good enough at some point. A guy like [Jordan] Martinook, stays with the whole game… Max [Domi] and [Anthony] Duclair, they’ve got to be better.”
That’s hardly enough to get alarmed about. The club has seen impressive numbers out of both Domi and Duclair on offense this season, as both rookies sit above the 10-goal mark just over halfway through the year. Rookies are expected to have a learning curve, so hearing that two young forwards need to get better isn’t much of a shock.
The rookies still did need to fix their game execution after Thursday night, and that much was clear. Getting the puck out of the neutral zone was a challenge, and breaking out of the defensive zone was even more difficult in the early minutes of the game for the club.
Arizona entered the midway point in the season with the most goals for among teams in the Pacific Division, and they entered Thursday night’s game with a 10-1-2 record against divisional rivals. Even with the 3-1 loss in an admittedly pivotal game, the Coyotes are still one of the best teams when facing their most familiar foes across the NHL this year, and that’s something that can be quantified on paper.
The execution around the net could still use some tweaking.
Like last season, the Coyotes still have trouble putting sustained pressure on their opponents from in close. Scoring from the point does happen, but it’s far more probable during a scrum around the blue paint for the opposition’s goaltender; limiting tracking chances for the netminder across the ice limits the likelihood that a team will walk away from a game with 95 shot attempts without a single goal scored. That’s a continued problem for Arizona, diluted a bit by the team’s talented scorers proving that they can find difficult angles and hidden spaces in a number of must-win games.
There’s also the necessity to start periods out strong, which the Coyotes failed to do against the Sharks on Thursday. The team looked flat for nearly ten minutes of play, and it put them down by two goals early on. That’s a hard deficit to overcome against a team with structure and talent like the San Jose Sharks.
The problems the Coyotes face aren’t unfixable though.
After the team’s 2-1 loss to the Buffalo Sabres earlier in the week, Tippett emphasized that teams aren’t measured by whether they go through slumps. Rather, they’re measured by how quickly they overcome those slumps and regenerate offense. For the Coyotes, they have one more home game before they head on the road to prove that they have that offensive generation within the lineup.
It may even be more than that. The desert club is running with only 12 forwards and eight defensemen, as they have been since dealing John Scott to the Montreal Canadiens earlier in January. There’s always the chance that what will sparks the team’s offense will be the addition of a new player, likely via trade as the trade deadline approaches.
From a tangible standpoint, though, the execution will have to be what improves the team for now – and it’s certainly possible, but winning won’t be unless that execution is cleaned up.