Nearly a third of the way through the 2013-14 season, the Phoenix Coyotes find themselves clinging to the second Wild Card spot in a very deep Western Conference.
That much might not be surprising, yet how they’ve played their way into playoff contention is a different story.
When the Coyotes made three straight playoff appearances from 2010-12, including an appearance in the Western Conference Finals, they did so by playing Dave Tippett’s style of hockey.
The recipe was simple: superb goaltending, a strong presence on the blue line, a consistent penalty kill and opportunistic scoring.
It wasn’t always sexy, but it was very effective. This season, it’s been the complete opposite.
Heading into play Wednesday, Phoenix is fourth in the league in scoring (3.2 goals per game) but ranks 25th in goals against (3.1 goals per game) and 27th in penalty kill (77.2 percent success rate).
“Coming into this season, we knew we were going to play good defense, because that is Dave Tippett’s brand of hockey,” Coyotes general manager Don Maloney told Arizona Sports 620’s Doug and Wolf Wednesday. “Ironically, we’ve been a little spotty in that area. Offensively, it has been a challenge the last two or three seasons. I think it’s a combination of Mike Ribiero coming in and the maturation of younger players. [Oliver] Ekman-Larsson is developing into a star in this league. Mike Stone has had a real great start to this season. We’re getting great production from our blue liners. Our offense has been terrific for the most part.
“The stuff we have to get better at is our penalty killing, especially at Jobing.com Arena. It’s unusual, but pucks seem to be finding a way into the net at home there. And certainly our goals against have to cut down.”
While the latter is an area Maloney admitted he’s not all that concerned with, it’s a little concerning given that goaltender Mike Smith is only in the first year of six-year deal worth $34 million.
Smith currently ranks in the top third of the league in wins (14) but is in the bottom third among starting netminders in save percentage (.911) and goals allowed per game (3.02).
And until Tuesday night’s 6-2 win in Edmonton, Smith had given up at least three goals in eight of his last nine starts.
“If you look at the last four or five of his starts, I do believe he puts pressure on himself,” said Maloney. “It’s no secret, we said that our game begins with our goaltending. Mike Smith has to have what I consider an “A” game almost every night. I think he knows it. We know it.
“And when he has those down cycles — and everyone goes through it during the course of the year where you’re not quite at the peak of your game — he feels it more than most.”
In 2012-13, Smith’s season was hampered by a reduced training camp and a rash of untimely injuries. This season, his GM believes the 31-year-old’s up-and-down play can be attributed to a few external factors.
“Obviously, we signed him to a lucrative contract,” said Maloney. “I think some times he puts pressure on himself to live up to the contract. I think with this whole Olympic year, he certainly we wants to be on the Canadian team. There’s obviously a certain amount of pressure he’s putting on himself.
“When he just relaxes and plays the game, he’s a terrific goalie. He’s one of the best in the league. When he starts over-thinking and worrying some of these other issues then the game falls off a little. All and all, Mike Smith has been terrific for the most part for us.”
Smith and the Coyotes continue their road swing through Alberta Wednesday night when they take on the Calgary Flames at 8:00 p.m. MST on KMVP 860 AM. In his career, Smith is 5-3-1 with a 2.50 GAA against Calgary.