The Phoenix Coyotes had a slogan for the 2011-12 season.
“Hockey the Hard Way.”
A solid marketing ploy, sure, but it was also how the team won games. Gritty defense combined with excellent goaltending and just enough offense to reach the Western Conference Finals.
The Coyotes were expected to be good once again this season, and some even felt they could even benefit some from the lockout, as their style may have been conducive to shaking the rust off more quickly and get back to playing at a high level.
Except, that wasn’t the case.
The Coyotes lost five of their first seven games before dropping a road tilt with the Dallas Stars in a shootout.
Phoenix has not lost since.
“We’re playing a little better,” Coyotes coach Dave Tippett told Arizona Sports 620’s Burns and Gambo Wednesday. “We’re protecting our goalies a little better and our team game has just, we got away from playing summer hockey where we thought it would be all fun and games to now we play hard.
“And that’s the difference in the game. If you’re willing to compete hard you’ll find some wins.”
That makes sense.
The Coyotes, for as good as they’ve been the last few years, are still not a squad that will overwhelm anyone with talent. That’s not to say they don’t have any, but it became apparent last year that there was a certain recipe the team needed to follow for success, and it just wasn’t following it early in the season.
The Coyotes had allowed 21 goals in their first five losses, and though many would point the finger at goalies Mike Smith and Jason Labarbera, Tippett seemed to say the defense in front of the net wasn’t particularly good and had to change.
“When you start it takes a few days to start sinking in,” Tippett said of what led to the slow start. “I think the one factor, we put that young Johnson kid in net and I think that got peoples’ attention that ‘we better protect this guy.’
“The kid came in, he played well in net, but we played very well in front of him.”
Tippett is referring to Chad Johnson, who was called up from the AHL and started between the pipes against the Nashville Predators, who he shutout, and the Edmonton Oilers, who got a 2-1 win in overtime.
Tippett said having success playing that way helps the players realize what they need to do in order to win games, and if consecutive victories over the Stars and Wild are any indication, it seems as though the message has finally sunk in.