It’s a better pace than their next-door neighbours, the Arizona Cardinals, have maintained this fall. But that’s small consolation for the Coyotes, who came into the season brimming with optimism only to stumble to a 3-8 start.
And while there are 71 games remaining, the Coyotes know they are in danger of falling out of playoff contention. They’re 14th in the 15-team Western Conference, and eight teams qualify for the post-season.
“In some ways it’s early, in other ways it’s not,” coach Wayne Gretzky said after practice Friday. “As I said to the players (Thursday), there’s an urgency here. We don’t have the luxury now of having a really good game and yet losing 2-1. We’ve dug ourselves a hole that we’ve got to get ourselves out of.
“When you have a fast start and you go 8-2, you have the luxury of having some bad nights. Right now, we don’t have that luxury.”
Thursday night’s resounding 6-2 win over Edmonton was encouraging, but the club knows it needs to maintain the momentum Saturday night against the visiting New York Rangers. The Coyotes followed each of their first two wins with four-game losing streaks.
“We haven’t accomplished anything yet,” winger Owen Nolan said. “We’ve dug ourselves a hole. But it was a positive sign to see us play that way.”
After Saturday’s game, the Coyotes take the next five days off, which matches their longest break of the season. Then they play 24 of their next 25 games against Western Conference rivals – a stretch that could determine whether they’ll be able to overcome their terrible start, or whether they’ll be buried by New Year’s Day.
On Thursday night, the Coyotes climbed out of the Western Conference cellar by staying out of the penalty box. Phoenix came into the game with 271 penalty minutes, 72 more than the next-highest club. Against Edmonton, the Coyotes had only six penalty minutes while building a 5-2 lead after two periods.
“We eliminated those (penalties) last night, but that’s only one game,” Gretzky said. “You’ve got to earn a reputation for doing that night in and night out.”
The Coyotes also received a lift from goaltender David LeNeveu, newly promoted from San Antonio. He made 32 saves against the Oilers, who had whipped Phoenix 5-2 three nights earlier.
LeNeveu will start against the Rangers at home Saturday night, but Gretzky reiterated Friday that Curtis Joseph remains his No. 1 goalie. Gretzky said he wanted to give the 39-year-old Joseph a rest.
Joseph has a .873 save percentage, well below his career .907 mark. But the number may be skewed because the Coyotes have spent so much time short-handed.
“Curtis has not been our problem,” Gretzky said. “I said this from Day One: we needed someone to take the pressure off of him, both from a mental aspect and from a physical aspect. We got that effort last night out of ‘Lenny,’ and this is a nice break for Curtis.
“It gives Curtis a good 10 days of rest and regroup,” Gretzky said. “When Curtis is fresh, he’s a tremendous goaltender.”
Joseph didn’t seem as if he needed a break. But he wouldn’t question the decision.
“I feel good,” Joseph said. “They know best, though.”
Joseph isn’t the only star who’s resting. Captain Shane Doan was scratched Thursday night with a sore back, and Gretzky said he won’t play against the Rangers.