GLENDALE, Ariz. — With their win on Saturday, the Tampa Bay Lightning pulled within two points of the Florida Panthers (who lost 5-3 on Saturday afternoon) for first place in the Atlantic Division. On the other side of the ice, the Arizona Coyotes have been fighting hard to see their own playoff berth this year, but Saturday night’s game was a harsh reminder that the Pacific Division franchise is still in the midst of a rebuild.
The Coyotes can be given a bit of a pass; they’re playing without top pairing defenseman Oliver Ekman-Larsson for yet another game, as they’ve been without him for a shoulder injury since a week after the trade deadline.
Still, the play of the Tampa Bay Lightning – who were without two of their own players with both Valtteri Filppula and Ryan Callahan missing from the lineup due to injuries – reminded the Coyotes of exactly how much work they have to do to truly look like a postseason contender.
The biggest mismatch may have been on defense, although the raw shot count may have masked some of the deficiencies on Arizona’s blue line. The shot quality for the Lightning was significantly higher than it was for Arizona, with a whopping 10 shot attempts taken from directly in front of the blue paint for Tampa Bay. In comparison, the Coyotes only managed to get five shot attempts from the same area.
The rest of the lineup was certainly a bit of a mismatch as well, though. Although the Coyotes have seen sophomore skater Tobias Rieder and his line – currently composed of center Martin Hanzal and winger Viktor Tikhonov – post some of the team’s best possession metrics throughout the year, they struggled immensely when pitted against a line with Steven Stamkos. Rieder posted some of his worst possession stats of the year out against the Stamkos line, recording a 36.11 CF% in the game.
Some of the team’s high points were certainly high, including a massive four-minute penalty kill following Anthony Duclair’s fight with Tampa Bay forward J.T. Brown, and a career high eight shots on goal for rookie Max Domi. The high points for the Lightning, though, showcased how much work the Coyotes still need to do to reach their peak potential.
Credit where credit is due, of course. The Lightning are an impressive franchise, and they showed the Coyotes how to rebound from a tough stretch.
“We knew the [Lightning] had been struggling a bit recently and they’d come out of the gate strong,” suggested Coyotes head coach Dave Tippett. “Their goaltender made some excellent plays tonight and took home the win.”
Lightning netminder Ben Bishop took home more than just the win, as well. The American-born goaltender, who spent his NCAA career with the University of Maine prior to starting with the Ottawa Senators and then the Lightning, recorded his 17th career NHL shutout, setting a franchise shutout record in the process, with 15 of his 17 goalless games coming while in Florida.
From an opportunistic goal by Lightning forward Ondrej Palat to a solid 5-on-3 penalty kill from the Lightning, the Coyotes got to see what one of the league’s best contenders had to offer in order to bring a three-game winning streak to a halt in the desert.
Looking ahead, the Coyotes can take what they learned from this game into the remainder of the season, as they keep pushing to finish of the year strong just one season after a disastrous 29th-place finish.
The quick play out of the gate for Tampa Bay was a harsh reminder to Arizona that they have to start off quick on their skates against the league’s powerhouses, which will help them against the Sharks on Sunday as San Jose likely looks to come back from their 3-1 loss on Thursday. The offensive pushes from Tampa Bay will also remind the Coyotes that they need to limit the number of quality shots from opponents when they have Domingue or Smith in net; that should help against the stacked Edmonton offense on Tuesday.
The biggest thing they’ll need to take away from the game, though, is that building a true contender takes more than just the energy and optimism they’ve seen this year.
Following the game, Bishop admitted that he felt secure behind a Tampa Bay defense that he’s ‘known for a couple of years now’.
“The blue line does a great job of limiting the shots I’ll have a tough time facing and they make it easy for me to do my job,” said Bishop. “I’ve been behind these guys for a couple of seasons now and they just keep doing what they’re supposed to.”
The Coyotes lack that luxury for now, which leads to an air of unpredictability and can keep a goaltender from feeling his job is as easy as it could be. Their oldest-tenured defenseman right now is Zbynek Michalek, with three of the team’s six defenseman — Klas Dahlbeck, Kevin Connauton, and Nicklas Grossmann — in their first full year with the Coyotes. That’s certainly something that the team will only see improve over the years, which takes patience.