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Coyotes’ special teams, mental strength both important for restart

The Arizona Coyotes players and coaches pause on the ice during NHL hockey practice at Gila River Arena Monday, July 13, 2020, in Glendale, Ariz. (AP Photo/Ross D. Franklin)

The Arizona Coyotes’ work to prepare for the Nashville Predators in a qualifying postseason series continued Wednesday with focus on special teams, particularly the power play.

“There was really some good parts,” head coach Rick Tocchet said after practice. “Overall, I liked the energy. We got a bunch of goals. It’s amazing, because early on we were struggling and weren’t shooting the puck and then players were barking at each other. I barked at a couple guys — not so much bark, but just to tell them if we don’t shoot the puck, we’re not going to open things up.”

After that, he said, the goals started to come.

Special teams battles often decide hockey games, and in a best-of-five series against the Preds, the two teams figure to see each others’ special teams units quite a bit. Arizona finished the 2019-20 regular season 18th in the NHL on the power play (19.2%) and Nashville finished 25th (17.3%). Arizona finished fifth in the NHL in the penalty kill, while the Predators were 29th.

Tocchet said what’s most important to him, though, is getting a power play goal in a key situation, and not focusing on the percentage as a whole. He made similar comments during this past season.

“Yeah, you go 0-for-3, 0-for-4 in a game, but you get that fifth power play with sixth minutes left and it’s a 2-2 game, that’s what I want these guys to understand,” Tocchet said. “That’s a big power play, the pressure’s on, can we score that goal? That can win you the game. And that’s the key for me. Are we there yet? No, but are we getting there? Yeah.”

The Predators are unique in that they are in the postseason with a different coach than they started the year with. Peter Laviolette was replaced during the season after Nashville got off to an underwhelming start. Current head coach John Hynes came over after he was let go by the New Jersey Devils during the season.

“I think their PK, they’ve switched things under Hynesy, I think they were better,” Tocchet said. “The last seven or eight games, they were a lot better at PK. I think they’ve found their rhythm. They’re very aggressive up ice. There’s some things that they do that we’re going to try to exploit, but I think they’ve changed some things on the special teams, and the stats are saying it’s for the better.”

Ultimately, though, the formula for winning may be simpler than we all realize.

“I think it’s not going to be as much about X’s and O’s as much as it’s going to be about individual player performances,” forward Taylor Hall told Arizona Sports’ Doug & Wolf on Wednesday. “Can guys come ready to play? Can guys step up and have big games and help their team out that way?”

Forward Derek Stepan, who has played 97 career playoff games, agreed with Hall.

“I agree with Taylor,” Stepan said. “I think the X’s and O’s are going to be a part of it, but I think these three weeks, teams are going to prepare like crazy, the Xs and Os are going to maybe take a backburner to conditioning and controlling your emotions and finding a good groove. Any time you go into a playoff series, you’ve got to have all the things like the special teams winning, you’ve got to get people to get hot, goaltending needs to play well and you’ve got to stay healthy.

“I think all of that’s still going to be part of it, but yeah, there’s going to be a mental side of this game, especially being in hub cities. There’s going to be a mental side of this where you have to be sharp in order to have any success through this.”

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