GLENDALE, Ariz. – The Phoenix Coyotes laboured through the first half of the season, slogging through a rash of injuries, a brutal schedule and inconsistency.
Once the calendar flipped to February, the Coyotes pulled together, got back to their defence-minded approach and shot up the standings.
At this point, it shouldn’t be much of a surprise.
In the previous two seasons, Phoenix put together winning streaks of at least five games after the all-star break, propelling them toward a playoff berth despite being run by the NHL.
They’ve done it again without an owner this season, earning at least a point in eight straight games to pull within two points of San Jose for the Pacific Division lead.
So what is it about February that puts a charge into the Coyotes? They’re not even sure.
“I don’t know what it is,” Coyotes forward Radim Vrbata said on Monday. “It seems like every year, we’ve needed a stretch like that. In this conference, you need stretches like that to be in the playoff picture and we’ve done that.”
Rest has had something to do with this season’s surge.
The first half of the season was an unmerciful mix of key injuries and a difficult schedule front-loaded with long road trips. Phoenix players missed a combined 84 games, including 18 by goalie Mike Smith and centre Martin Hanzal, and the team racked up an estimated 28,000 miles the six weeks before the All-Star break.
With a week off to heal and rest, the Coyotes came back refreshed, following a well-played loss to Anaheim in their first post-break game with a 7-0-1 stretch that moved them from 12th in the Western Conference to seventh, two points ahead of Calgary and the Los Angeles Kings.
“We were pretty tired at the end of the stretch that we went through—we had a pretty tough go there,” Coyotes captain Shane Doan said. “Once the All-Star break got here, we were able to get some rest and some confidence instead of trying to just survive.”
That’s not the whole story, though.
Phoenix is still beset by injuries: Taylor Pyatt, Hanzal, David Schlemko, Rostislav Klesla and Kyle Chipchura are all out or questionable for Tuesday night’s home game against the Kings. Defenceman Derek Morris also is out indefinitely while dealing with an illness in the family.
Getting back to their work-hard-all-the-time basics and a dash of confidence has led the Coyotes through their recent surge.
Under coach Dave Tippett, Phoenix isn’t a team that’s flashy or has star players who can carry everyone else. When the Coyotes are playing well, they’re sound defensively, scoring opportunistically and grinding out tight victories by winning their individual battles while still playing as a team.
Phoenix was hit-or-miss with that approach in the first half of the season, playing well one game, lackadaisical the next. Once they got back to playing the gritty style Tippett preaches, the Coyotes started winning. A few wins in a row and the confidence started building upon itself, the players believing they should win every game.
“Winning is a byproduct of how you play,” Tippett said. “What we’ve done is we’ve got ourselves in a position where we’ve played some solid games. Our goaltending has been excellent, we’ve had timely scoring and found different ways to win hockey games. When you do that, you earn that confidence to feel you can win every game.”
Phoenix’s every-man-in approach has been supplemented by a few breakout performances.
After a slow start to the season, Vrbata has turned into the Coyotes’ go-to scorer. He’s already set a career high in goals with 28 and is tied for the NHL lead with 10 game-winning goals, including four of the past six games.
The line of Vrbata, Hanzal and seemingly-ageless Ray Whitney have combined for 11 goals and 19 assists the past 10 games, and teamed up for the winner—Whitney to Vrbata—in Phoenix’s 2-1 overtime win over Dallas Saturday night.
Smith has been superb during the run, too.
After some inconsistent stretches early in the season, Smith has been one of the NHL’s best goalies since the All-Star break, allowing four goals his past six starts. He had consecutive shutouts for the second time in his career, against Chicago and the Kings, and a streak of over 171 minutes without allowing a goal before the Stars caromed one in against him on Saturday.
Smith has set career highs with 29 wins, four shutouts and a current seven-game winning streak.
“He’s been maybe above-average,” Doan said facetiously. “No, he’s been phenomenal and to see a teammate play that well, it gives our whole team confidence. He just exudes and it’s fun to be on this team right now.”
February fun—the Coyotes are turning it into a tradition.