GLENDALE, Ariz. – They bumped and jostled for every inch, knocking the goal off its moorings and each other to the ice, the sounds of bodies slamming into the boards echoing through the empty arena.
Charged up by a hat trick-infused winning streak, the Phoenix Coyotes seem to have put their early-season struggles behind them and they want more, which was made evident by their teammate-crunching practice on the eve of a three-game road trip.
“There’s little things we still need to work on and are working on every day,” Coyotes defenceman Derek Morris said, sweat dripping down his face after the spirited practice on Monday. “You’ve got to go hard in practice. That’s the best time to work on it, in practice at full speed, full tilt.”
The Coyotes’ season finally seems to be going full-bore after a rough start.
Coming off the best season in franchise history, Phoenix was maddeningly inconsistent to start this season. The defensive-minded Coyotes struggled with injuries, couldn’t keep traffic from in front of goalie Ilya Bryzgalov and had more trouble than usual scoring, opening the season 4-5-5.
An unusual amount of goals coming from unusual sources has changed their fortunes.
The three-goal game by Lee Stempniak on Oct. 21 against Los Angeles wasn’t too much of a surprise; he scored 27 goals for St. Louis in 2006-07. Still, it was his first career hat trick.
A head-scratcher came next. Defenceman Ed Jovanovski, known more for dumping opponents to the ice than pucks into the net, added his first career hat trick against Nashville on Nov. 3.
Two hat tricks so early in the season for a team that had two the previous two seasons combined? Not bad.
But the hats kept flying.
Vernon Fiddler, a self-proclaimed mucker, notched his first career hat trick in nine NHL seasons in a 5-4 win over Calgary on Friday.
The next night, Ray Whitney, a veteran signed as a free agent in the off-season, scored his first goal of the season and added two more in a 5-3 win over St. Louis, giving the Coyotes hat tricks in consecutive games for the first time since 1999.
So what if the final two hat tricks were finished off by empty netters? It’s given Phoenix three straight wins and an NHL-best four three-goal games just 17 games into the season.
“We’re trying to stimulate the economy, selling hats. Cabela’s over there, they’re getting low,” Coyotes coach Dave Tippett joked. “But it’s funny how it’s gone. Sometimes you just have things that happen and we’ve been fortunate to have some guys step up and do well.”
Some of that fortune has been generated within.
The Coyotes aren’t a finesse team, aren’t going to score a lot of pretty goals, so they have to grind out in front of the net, get tip-ins and putbacks. That wasn’t happening early in the season, despite Tippett harping on it.
Phoenix has been a bit more assertive in front of the net over the past week or so and it’s paid off, leading to 10 goals the past two games. The Coyotes still aren’t where Tippett would like them to be in the gritty goal department, but they’re getting there and building confidence as they do it.
“We always talk about you have to earn confidence and one way to earn confidence is win,” Tippett said. “There’s still a lot of work to be done in our game. There’s some areas I’d really like to see us get better in, but that said, full credit that our guys are scratching and clawing trying to find a way to get a victory.”
Even in practice.