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Arizona Coyotes shuffle line combos, preach on missed shots

Arizona Coyotes' Nick Cousins (25) controls the puck against the Los Angeles Kings during the first period of an NHL hockey game Tuesday, Dec. 4, 2018, in Los Angeles. (AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez)

GLENDALE, Ariz. — Arizona Coyotes assistant coach John MacLean likened the team’s process of deciding forward line combinations to an age-old cooking technique.

“You see if the spaghetti’s ready, right?” he said. “You throw it up against the wall to see what sticks and what looks good.”

MacLean and the coaching staff, including of course head coach Rick Tocchet, get together to decide on the team’s lineups as a group. And while there are obvious trios throughout the league that go together like bread, peanut butter and jelly (like Colorado’s Gabriel Landeskog, Nathan MacKinnon and Mikko Rantanen), the Coyotes often decide on lines by finding just two players that work well together and then adding a third to complete the group.

“We had Richie [Brad Richardson] and Grabs [Michael Grabner] together there and then Grabs goes down, we’re looking to see Kells [Clayton Keller] and Schmaltzy [Nick Schmaltz] together and hopefully they can get some magic in their game,” MacLean said. “Step’s [Derek Stepan] been pretty good with Fisch [Christian Fischer], it’s been older guy, younger guy together.

“So that’s kind of what we’re looking to do and then rotate the guys in different spots, depending on what night it is.”

One of the players to be moved around the lineup frequently is Nick Cousins, who has played all three forward positions and on all four lines this season. On Sunday against Carolina, Cousins was listed as the top line left wing alongside Schmaltz and Keller at the start of the game.

“I’m just waiting for them to throw me back on D and maybe goalie here soon and we’ll see what happens,” Cousins joked. “But I’m comfortable with all three. Wherever they need me I can slot in wherever.”

One side effect of playing up and down the lineup is frequently having different line mates. But Cousins said over time a player will learn what all his different teammates like to do on the ice, even if it is sometimes a guessing game of where he’ll play on a given night.

“I think chemistry on the ice is huge and it’s a big part of having success offensively is when you know where each other are going to be and their tendencies and what they like to do,” he said, noting that he frequently played with Richardson last year and Lawson Crouse a lot this year. “I think I’m comfortable with almost all forwards. You kind of figure out what they like to do eventually.”

Cousins, who had career-highs in goals (12), points (19) and games played (71) last year in his first season with Arizona, has an offensive element to his game as well as an energy that can “change the complexion of the game,” MacLean pointed out.

He got the Coyotes’ first fighting major of the season on Friday night at the New York Rangers.

SCORING TROUBLE? DON’T WORRY

On Sunday in a 3-0 loss at Carolina, the Coyotes were shutout on 23 shots on goal and went 0-for-2 on the power play. They are now second-to-last in the NHL in goals for (80) and 23rd in the league in power play percentage (16.7 percent).

It’s an unfortunate development given that the team has been stellar on defense all year, allowing just 89 goals against (fourth-best in the NHL) and owning an 88.8 penalty kill percentage (best in NHL).

Part of the problem with their goal scoring has been missing the net far too often.

“Carolina made two egregious mistakes and we didn’t score. They score on us. Saying that, we miss the net a lot,” Tocchet said. “We’re a team that misses the net a lot. That’s something we’ve addressed as a team. For whatever reason, whether we’re trying to hit the corners too fine — it starts in practice. Sometimes we miss the net in practice a lot.

“You’ve got to hit the net. Almost every game, there’s six or seven miss-the-net shots. We can’t afford to miss those shots.”

As Tocchet mentioned, it could just be that players are trying to get too fancy with where they’re aiming their shots.

“Hitting the net is work,” MacLean said. “They’ve all got beautiful shots, they shoot harder than anybody can imagine, but the thing about shooting is it’s not about making noise. It’s not about banging it off the glass or banging it off the end boards. It’s about getting it on the net. I’ve likened it to golf: You want to keep it in play where you can hit it again.

“So if you can shoot it on the goalie and maybe not every shot on net is designed to go in, sometimes it’s designed to rebound and what happens off that rebound. […] Sometimes the best play is to throw it on the net. You see the older guys, I mean Step will throw a little soft shot for a purpose on the net and it rebounds. We got scored on the other night on a — it was a simple shot on the net and it rebounds.”

But just as the Coyotes weren’t worried when they started the year and were shut out three times in four games, they’re not worried now. Goal scoring has to improve, but it might not be time to hit the panic button — even if the team has lost five of its last six and is in second-to-last place in the division.

“When you’re a goal-scorer, it’s like, ‘OK well I’m not scoring, but did I get any chances?’,” MacLean said. “You only worry when you don’t get chances. You never worry when you’re not getting chances because the law of averages are going to take over.

“We worry more about how the team’s playing, and you can see like you’re not going to score every night and you’re not going to score on every chance, but you’ve got to have a strong belief that if you’re doing the — Toc talks about the fundamentals — if you’re doing the fundamentals right, it will just eventually turn your way. Our problem right now is the consistency in our game and that goes hand-in-hand with everything. Some nights we stay with it for 60 minutes and some nights we stay with it for 58. But those two minutes we don’t, it can be a disaster and that’s kind of where we are and it’s part of the growing process with the team.”

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