GLENDALE, Ariz. — Confidence is a funny thing.
Too low of an amount and a man can look diminished, weak. Too much and the man grows too tall, easily tripping himself up. And just the right amount makes him look taller. It’ll even let him cover up a few mistakes.
It’s pretty clear the Phoenix Coyotes are the former in that list at the moment. At times, it looks like they’ve already booked tee times and vacations on April 14. Players who normally take charge of games and the team are pulling up early. They’re not putting in the hard work needed for a team who lacks all-stars to win. They look lackadaisical, as if they can feel the Mai Tai in their hand and the ocean breeze in their hair.
But there’s a problem: They’re still in the Western Conference playoff hunt. The Coyotes are clinging to the final playoff spot up for grabs and, if the season ended Friday, would be in.
It would be one thing if the team had given up, but they haven’t. Not even close. If guys truly didn’t care, they wouldn’t have looked as defeated as they did after a shootout loss to the Edmonton Oilers on Friday, a game they thought they had won until a puck-handling error by Thomas Greiss led to a late tying goal.
“You have to put this game behind you,” the goaltender said after the loss. “You’re going to be upset tonight, but you have a good day off (Saturday) and go from there.”
The nice thing? The Coyotes don’t really have anywhere to go but up at the moment. Friday closed out a horrendous week for the team that saw them lose twice in a shootout to non-playoff teams (Edmonton and Winnipeg) and have their butts served to them on a silver platter by the rival Los Angeles Kings.
“I’m sure they’re down a little bit because when you lose a game like that – you know, you’re pushing hard to win – and the way we gave up that second goal, that’s demoralizing but there’s no time to hang your head now. It’s like losing an overtime game in the playoffs.”
Demoralizing is an understatement, but not because of the loss itself. It was the way the team lost that hurts.
The Coyotes looked slower than dirt to start the game and didn’t generate a lot. The Oilers were able to jump out to a 1-0 lead late in the first, generally another sign of a long game to come. But then came along Oliver Ekman-Larsson, the clear MVP of the game, and his nasty snipe over the shoulder of Ben Scrivens to make it a 1-1 game.
You could see the change in the Phoenix squad immediately. That took a confident man to make a shot as sweet as OEL’s and the team fed off of it. Suddenly, they start hitting. Fighting for the puck. Making passes. It was still sloppy, but the confidence was there to keep pushing and trying to create chances.
Prior to OEL’s goal, the Coyotes had not scored in nearly 140 minutes of hockey. That’s a long time and would affect even the strongest of NHL players. But that goal lifted the team. It was another confident effort that saw Kyle Chipchura bang home a rebound from an OEL shot. A guy who is not confident in himself and his teammates won’t dig down low for the puck, won’t have his stick on the ice hoping for a rebound. Chipchura did.
Then the Greiss error (we don’t need to discuss that bit of play further) led to overtime and the shootout, and the Coyotes’ confidence evaporated.
After suffering a bad shootout loss to Winnipeg Tuesday, I figured the Coyotes three main shooters – Mikkel Boedker, Radim Vrbata and Antoine Vermette – would opt for their patented moves, the same one that has won numerous shootouts this season.
I was wrong.
For the second straight shootout, all three tried to pull something different. All three were ineffective. The Coyotes first three shooters weren’t even confident enough in themselves to pull a proven move. That’s an issue.
With only four games left and just a slim one-point lead on Dallas, the Coyotes can’t wait for a big win to be handed to them on a platter. It’s not going to happen. They have a tougher run-in than the Stars and could very easily be watching the first round of playoffs from their living room if they don’t find a way to boost their confidence in each other to get the job done and the two points secured.
No matter what I write, it’s entirely up to the guys. They have a four-day break until they meet up with the Blue Jackets in Columbus on Tuesday. If they can rediscover their confidence, the Coyotes have what it takes to punch their ticket to the postseason.
If they can’t, I’m confident the guys will be missing out on the playoffs for the second straight year.