For the Arizona Coyotes–who have earned just three wins in their last ten games–getting two points in their Thursday night tilt against the Chicago Blackhawks would have been a game-changer.
For head coach Dave Tippett, the one point they did earn was huge.
“Part of it was scoring chances we allowed,” said Tippett, referring to the five goals scored between regulation and overtime for the Blackhawks in a thriller win for the conference rivals.
“It was also, you know, a lot of pure skill from their guys. It was that skill they have.”
The Blackhawks are first in the Central Division by three points now. They are only two points out of first in the NHL, and are in the middle of a 7-3-0 record in their last 10 contests. In comparison, the Coyotes are just 3-5-2 in that same time frame. To walk away with even a point against one of the most dangerous teams in the NHL was a testament to the Coyotes staying in the game all the way through overtime.
The holes in Arizona’s game were still magnified, potentially even more so by the fact that they were playing the best in the West. For example, their power play–which has allowed a league-leading 10 short-handed goals against so far this season–has some areas that need work.
“Duclair was a good 15 feet ahead of his man, and [Mikkel] Boedker was cheating towards the center when he should have trusted his team to cover their men,” was Tippett’s assessment of that 10th short-handed tally, which was scored by Jonathan Toews early in the second period.
That’s a rookie mistake. Anthony Duclair, who boasts 14 goals in his first full year of NHL play, bounces between being a possession machine and a forward whose youth shows through in blinding neon colors. It was a play that yielded mistakes from both himself and the older Boedker, but it was still a play that the 20-year-old can learn from.
Then, of course, there was the goaltending. Slightly better for the Coyotes than for the Blackhawks (who saw starter Corey Crawford allow four goals on just 28 shots against), but still in need of improvement after the game.
That’s something that rookie Louis Domingue recognized.
“You want to get your rhythm back,” he suggested, referring to the two games he’s been pulled from in the last few starts alone, “and this was a good game for that. Unfortunately the last bounce didn’t go our way but it was a good game and things felt good for a lot of the shots against.”
That’s not a bad thing.
The Coyotes were marked heading into the 2015-16 season as the team most likely to finish dead last, and it wasn’t even close. The advanced stats projections suggested that, based on historical precedent for the players on Arizona’s roster and an NHL replacement-level performance from each of their rookies, they would be on the wrong side of terrible.
Instead they’ve been an exciting surprise. Within the 5-4 overtime loss, the Coyotes saw 39-year old captain Shane Doan score his 18th goal of the season. He’s on pace for a 20-goal campaign as one of the oldest players in the NHL, and that’s been huge.
There’s also been an extremely successful rookie class. Duclair has 14 goals, Max Domi has 13 goals and 34 points, and lesser-known fellow rookie Jordan Martinook scored his second goal in as many games for seven goals and 19 points on the year. Strong performances from other young players like Connor Murphy and Tobias Rieder are also noteworthy.
Add in two shutouts from Domingue early on and two hat tricks (and counting) for left winger Mikkel Boedker, and there’s been a lot of exceeding expectations on the team’s roster so far.
That doesn’t mean it’s all that sustainable. Both the youngest players in the league and the oldest veterans are often high candidates for regression, which suggests that the playoff spot Arizona currently covets may be out of their reach this year–and that’s okay. This is the year that they discover who should stay and who may need to go, where the room for regression is (and how to fix it), and what holes the team needs to actively go out and fill. If they can win in the process, that’s an added bonus.
That makes a point against one of the toughest teams in the league pretty huge.
The Coyotes have another game on Friday against the Anaheim Ducks–a must-win for the franchise if they hope to remain in their high-flying playoff bubble–then a few days of rest before facing the Vancouver Canucks.
A win against the Blackhawks would have ensured that both Arizona and Anaheim entered their Friday night tilt tied in the standings from a points perspective, although Anaheim holds a game in hand. Instead, the Coyotes will go into their second of a back-to-back trailing by a point and hoping to pull off a win in regulation. That’s a lot of pressure for a team that’s already defying the odds.
That didn’t seem to worry coach Tippett. He just smiled and reiterated that it was a good game played. If this is just the beginning of what Coyotes fans can expect when the rest of their young prospect pool ages into the system, he’s absolutely right.