GLENDALE, Ariz. — Earlier this season when the Coyotes’ power play was struggling and Mikkel Boedker was adapting to playing the point and the Coyotes were allowing an inordinate amount of shorthanded goals, assistant coach Newell Brown kept highlighting the unit’s positives.
“Our percentage didn’t reflect what we were doing early in the year,” Arizona’s power-play guru said Wednesday. “We were getting quite a few scoring chances but we weren’t consistent from game to game.”
Brown’s patience and trademark positivity have been rewarded. Since the All-Star break, Arizona’s power play is 7-for-28 (25 percent) and a unit that was languishing at the bottom of the NHL rankings in early December had climbed to a respectable 14th at 19.3 percent entering Wednesday’s games.
While Arizona still isn’t among the elite man-advantages in the league, the Coyotes have enjoyed more power-play opportunities (212) than any NHL team, allowing them to score 41 power-play goals, which was tied for second in the NHL to San Jose’s 43 prior to Wednesday’s action.
The Coyotes are at a loss to pinpoint why they are getting more opportunities than other teams. Brown wonders if the stat is just an outlier or if the Coyotes coaching staff yells at the referees more than other staffs. Coach Dave Tippett thinks the team’s philosophy in the offensive zone plays a role in creating opportunities. Captain Shane Doan believes the Coyotes’ sudden bevy of quick players is helping draw those opportunities, but he has another theory that probably factors in the mix.
“Nobody will ever say this, but we get called for a lot of penalties, too,” said Doan, noting the Coyotes have been shorthanded 200 times, the fifth-most in the league. “Very rarely is it going to be lopsided one way or the other. That’s just the way the game is called.”
The Coyotes’ penalty-killing unit is ranked 27th in the NHL and has allowed (44 goals). Add to that the league-high 10 shorthanded goals Arizona has allowed and the special teams are still operating at a net loss, but the power play’s recent progress is undeniable.
There are five key factors in that progression.
Familiarity: When the season began, the Coyotes introduced a lot of new personnel to the power play, including rookies Max Domi and Anthony Duclair.
“It’s easier when you know the guys you play with on the power play; when you know what they’re going to do,” said defenseman Oliver Ekman-Larsson, who leads the team with 11 power-play goals. “It takes some time to get used to playing with new guys, but now that we have played some games with them they know what to do.”
Repetition: Brown preaches a simple structure on the power play where players are always supposed to be in certain areas and there are always a handful of options for the puck carrier and those without the puck. By practicing those same simple plays over and over again, the Coyotes have developed a good understanding of what Brown wants, and they have formed the habit of doing it without thinking.
“It seems like we can move the puck quicker because everyone is where they’re supposed to be and everyone knows where everyone else is supposed to be,” said Doan, who has used his net presence and size to score 10 power-play goals.
Kevin Connauton’s addition: Earlier this season, Tippett was asked why he kept putting Boedker at the point when the Coyotes were allowing shorthanded goals and he uttered the infamous line: “That’s what we’ve got,” referring to a blue line with three defensemen capable of playing the power play (Ekman-Larsson, Connor Murphy and Michael Stone) and three more suited to defending (Zbynek Michalek, Nicklas Grossmann and Klas Dahlbeck). By adding Connauton, the Coyotes finally feel comfortable with four defensemen who can play the point.
Michael Stone’s progression: While Connauton’s addition has proven important, so has the improvement of Stone. Stone has a big, heavy shot that seems a natural fit for the power play, but the other areas of his game weren’t up to snuff earlier this season.
“I think he’s showing the calmness and the confidence to settle down and be more than a shooter now,” Brown said. “He’s showing the ability to move around with the puck, to get his head up and take his time to find the open man — to find the right man — if he doesn’t have the shot.”
Boedker’s back up front: Connauton’s addition and Stone’s progression have in turn allowed Boedker to move back to his forward spot where Brown says he will stay, barring injuries.
“He’s at his best when he’s playing forward and our unit can be stronger because of it,” Brown said.
“It’s never bad to try new things and ultimately it’s just nice to be on the power play, getting chances,” he said. “But it’s a lot easier (playing forward) than being the last man standing sometimes. It’s the position you grew up playing so you’re more comfortable in that setting.”
Brown has had success with the power play wherever he has coached. The Coyotes finished seventh in the league each of his first two seasons in Arizona at 19.5 percent and 20, respectively. In two of his three seasons in Vancouver, the Canucks finished in the top five twice. They were first in 2010-11 (24.3 percent) and fourth in 2011-12 (19.8 percent).
Aside from the simplicity of his structure, players unanimously cite his positive approach as a key in pushing the unit forward.
“I think the power play has a lot to do with confidence so the guys seeing themselves doing things well is important and we try to emphasize that,'” he said. “We do show corrections we need to make on a game-by-game basis with individuals and as a group. But in order to go out there and feel it, they need to feel good about utilizing their skills.”
Doan said that is doubly important at this time of year with the Coyotes chasing a playoff spot.
“It’s the difference between winning and losing this time of year,” he said. “With the way they call the games so close now, you’re going to get power-play opportunities. You have to be able to take advantage of them.”
Stars at Coyotes
When: Thursday, 7 p.m.
Where: Gila River Arena, Glendale
TV: FOX Sports Arizona
Radio: Arizona Sports 98.7 FM
Probable goalies: Stars — TBD. Kari Lehtonen is 12-3-4 with a 2.00 and .934 save percentage against Arizona. Antti Niemi is 15-5-4 with a 2.12 GAA and .928 SP against Arizona. Coyotes — Louis Domingue.
Season series: First meeting.
Injury report: Stars — C Jason Spezza (upper body) could return. LW Travis Moen (lower body) is on IR. Coyotes — G Mike Smith (abdominal surgery) is likely to return in early March. C Boyd Gordon (upper body) is week to week. G Anders Lindback (Achilles) and RW Joe Vitale (concussion symptoms) are out for the season.
Scouting the Stars: The Stars went into the All-Star break in a tailspin after a 3-6-2 January that dropped them out of first place in the Central Division. Dallas has righted the ship and pulled within a point of the Central lead (the Stars have three games in hand on the Blackhawks) with a 6-1-1 February that included a win in Chicago. … Dallas’s top line of Jamie Benn, Tyler Seguin and Patrick Sharp (Sharp has been playing on the second line recently) has accounted for 75 goals and 168 points, but the Stars are starting to get scoring from other areas and could get Jason Spezza back for this game. … The additions of veterans Antti Niemi, Johnny Oduya and Sharp have given the Stars the belief that they have enough playoff experience to avoid a postseason flameout (all three won Cups with Chicago) but the Stars could look to add to their thin blue line before the trade deadline.
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