GLENDALE, Ariz. – The Phoenix Coyotes have matched their best start in a dozen years, have one of the NHL’s highest-scoring offences, and have shown that no lead is safe.
Coach Dave Tippett still isn’t happy with the way his team is playing.
The goals and wins? Any coach will take those, even a defensive-minded one like Tippett.
It’s everything else that he is concerned about.
“Don’t get me wrong. I like winning,” he said after the Coyotes beat Edmonton 5-4 on Saturday. “Any time you win, you should have a smile on your face. But what I look at is how we’re going to win long term. There is just some things in our game that are going to have to improve if we’re going to win long term.”
The way the Coyotes won in the past was by playing steady at the blue line and capitalizing when offensive chances came. That’s been Tippett’s philosophy since he became a head coach, and what helped Phoenix reach the playoffs three of four years, including a trip to the Western Conference finals in 2011, that it played without an owner.
The Coyotes figured to be better offensively this season with the addition of Mike Ribeiro—the top-line centre they had coveted for so long—and have been the first month of the season.
Phoenix scored 40 goals in its first 12 games, which was tied for second in the NHL before Sunday’s games. Because of the scoring, the Coyotes have opened the season 7-3-2 with 16 points, matching the 2009-10 season for best start in the past 12 years. Phoenix has been particularly good at home, earning nine of 10 points.
But for the Coyotes to sustain this pace, they will need to tighten up in their own end.
Giving up too many good chances and turnovers inside their blue line, the Coyotes have allowed 39 goals, second most in the NHL.
Some of it has been coverage, but goalie Mike Smith also has had some shaky moments in the early part of the season, giving up a few soft goals and too many rebounds. Smith, who signed a six-year, $34 million contract to stay in the desert, is 37th in the NHL with a save percentage of .903. He was pulled in a loss to Los Angeles on Thursday after giving up four goals in the first period.
“We’ve got to be a little better down there,” defenceman Keith Yandle said.
The Coyotes have shown flashes of their shutdown ability this season, including a 4-1 win over the New York Rangers in the season opener and a 2-1 victory at Philadelphia.
The problem is, there have been too many loose games in which Phoenix has either been blown out or had to rally from multiple-goal deficits.
Two of the blowouts came at the start of a five-game road trip, when the Coyotes lost 4-1 to San Jose and 6-1 to the Islanders. After a string of solid defensive games, Phoenix came out flat in its own end against the Kings, giving up the four goals in the first period and three more after rallying to tie it.
Against Edmonton, the Coyotes allowed the Oilers to rally from a two-goal deficit to take the lead before scoring two goals in the third period to pull out the win.
“Our game is not in very good shape,” Tippett said.
It has certainly been entertaining.
Thanks to their newfound, freewheeling style, the Coyotes have filled their schedule with high-scoring games, comebacks and exciting victories.
Ribeiro has been one of the catalysts, using his craftiness to score goals and set up his teammates while breathing life into what had once been a stagnant power play. He had a seven-game point streak after a slow start to the season and is tied for the team lead with five goals.
Big-bodied Martin Hanzal has been a force in the early part of the season, using his rugged style of play to get in front of the net. A steady two-way player, he has 11 points in 12 games and three goals the past two games.
Phoenix’s defencemen have chipped in, as well. The Coyotes’ blue-liners have always been good at jumping into the play, particularly Yandle, and four defencemen scored against the Oilers. That hadn’t happened since the franchise moved to the Valley of the Sun in 1996.
That’s all great, but Tippett wants more substance to go with some of the flash.
“You can be a fun team, but if you’re going to just go out there and give away chances and give away four or five goals a night, then you might be entertaining but you won’t be winning,” Tippett said.
It’s been working for the Coyotes, so far, but usually doesn’t in the long run, which is why Tippett is concerned.