Last night, the Coyotes beat the Blackhawks 3-0 to give them their fifth straight win and move them into eighth place in the Western Conference. Considering before this homestand they were tied for 12th and going in the wrong direction, this turnaround could not have come at a better time. 56 games played, 26 to go. 10 days ago, the talk was of which players would GMDM sell or trade off to give them a chance to win the Stanley Cup. The talk was that this team had peaked over the past two years and the ownership issues have overwhelmed the players. Questions were raised on the goaltending and if the Coyotes should have paid Bryz his hostage money. Fan confidence was low. Player confidence was lower. The locker room was not a place where visions of Stanley Cups were made. Mike Smith has just been pulled from the Anaheim debacle after Cogliano’s hat trick.
Five straight and convincing wins over winning teams that are talented have changed the dialogue. It has changed the dialogue from who should GMDM send off to “We have what we need to win.” It has changed the players attidude. Fans responded with a sold out Jobing.com. What have we learned about this team?
- Third and Fourth Lines are contributing in all areas of the ice. We saw that last night when Kyle Chipchura honored Jeremy Roenick by dropping the gloves 94 seconds into the first period. Why was that important. It was a 6:30 pm game start, 30 minutes later than usual. The team comes out for warmups, goes back into the locker room for 17 minutes, then comes out for a beautiful tribute to Jeremy Roenick. They sat for the ceremony, allowing the muscles to cool. Emotions from how Jeremy played and what he meant to this franchise. Emotions to his comments on how this city deserves a team. Thoughts on his statements that he has a group who wants to enter the bidding process. Thoughts on how you have a high flying monster scoring potential talented Blackhawk team 30 feet away who wants to end a losing streak. What does Chipchura do? He drops the gloves and pounds Andrew Shaw. 100 seconds later, Vrbata banks the puck in off the skates of Sami Lepisto for a 1-0 lead. Chipchura scored in the third period on a great feed from Brule and Torres to get 2/3 of the Gordie Howe hat trick. Rafi Torres was around the net all night. Gilbert Brule makes GMDM look even smarter for bringing him in off waivers. He skates hard, goes into the corners, does all the little things right. Pyatt is Pyatt. It is time he now comes alive.
- Vrbata has the hot stick. Goals are coming in every way for him. He is deadly on the shootout. He has a great ripper from the face off circle that he can put top glove or top blocker. Give him an inch, he’ll drive the puck into that zone. 26 goals, 21 assists. His career high in goals is 27. He can beat that this week. What is impressive is his assist count. He is a sniper, but also looking to get others in on the scoring. Show me some video of Steven Stamkos or Phil Kessel passing the puck vs. taking the shot. They don’t. That is why you cannot build a team around them. Vrbata, great team player.
- Ray Whitney. 16 goals, 35 assists = 51 points. A +19 rating. 5 Power Play Goals. He makes everyone on the ice a better player. You have to get open because he will find you for an open shot. If you are D, you must pick your head up and look for the long clear to the Wizard breaking straight up the middle of the ice. No longer can you just wrap it around the boards. You need to be aware of Wizard sneaking behind the defense.
- Mike Smith. He always wanted to be a starting number One goalie. The Coyotes gave him that chance and he is making the most of the opportunity. 2.33 Goals Against Average, 13th in the NHL. 925 save percentage (15th in NHL). 5th in the NHL when on the penalty kill. He is the reason the team is in 8th place. He is the reason teams cannot play the dump and chase. Smitty grabs the puck and flings it to the open man, be it D or a forward. Give him an open net at the end of the third and he’s going for it. His technical skills are sound. His mental focus is “on.” He doesn’t hide from the media. Is not aloof or difficult to backup Jason LaBarbera or the rest of his teammates. He is adored by the fans.
- Center Position. Boyd Gordon is brought in to be a stellar face off winner and is known as a defensive minded center. He has 7 goals and 13 assists. A +12 rating. 56.7% face off wins for a top 10 in the NHL. And he gets penalty kill time vs. power play minutes. He knows his office is in front of the net, and he goes to work nightly. After Saturday’s game, he talks about how hard he works on the defensive portion of his game. Now he is getting some scoring. Approaching career highs. Hanzal is just a beast. Just a few of the players he has had to shut down. Jonathon Toews, Olli Jokinen. Mike Ribeiro. Pavel Datsuk. Patrick Marleau. 1 goal out of that group is fantastic, especially since you saw them in the five games.
- Game Plan. The Coyote game plan of scoring first and then playing a pressure forecheck, denying entry into the defensive zone thanks to neutral zone play. Penalty kill that is 5th in the NHL. The defensemen are laying down and blocking shots. Daymond Langkow uses his face to stop the puck. Sticks are breaking on power play shots from the point. Pucks are finding the net from the point. Coach Tippett calls it puck luck. The Yotes have it right now.