GLENDALE, Ariz. — It’s strange how two games can so dramatically alter the optics of a team.
When the Coyotes dropped the first two games of their five-game East Coast road trip last week, the fear was that they were spiraling back into that deep, dark place they had inhabited for most of the 2014-15 season.
Two wins in Canada got everyone back onboard the train that left this season’s station 3-0, but back-to-back losses to Boston and Vancouver closed October with a frustrating sense of missed opportunity.
“We’re sitting at .500 and usually that’s not good enough,” center Antoine Vermette said. “You can say we had a tough schedule right off the bat but you’ve got to find a way.”
Two alarming trends have emerged for the Coyotes 11 games into the season. They are making a habit of poor starts and ill-fated rallies, as they did in Friday’s 4-3 loss to the Canucks at Gila River Arena in which they spotted Vancouver a 3-0, first-period lead.
They’re also getting subpar goaltending from Mike Smith, who lasted just three shots on Friday (and two goals) before coach Dave Tippett yanked him following a soft goal off the stick of Alex Burrows from the left point.
“He hasn’t played as well as we’d like here this last little bit,” Tippett said.
In his last seven starts, Smith hasn’t topped the .900 mark in save percentage, allowing 25 goals on 169 shots (.852).
“Hopefully the week off and some good practice this week will help,” Tippett added.
The same can be said for the Coyotes. Taken at face value, a 5-5-1 start for a team in transition probably exceeds expectations, especially when you consider the Coyotes played seven of 11 games on the road and had three back-to-back sets of games.
Arizona was picked to finish last in the Western Conference by most major media outlets, but the play of rookies Max Domi, Anthony Duclair, Jordan Martinook and second-year forward Tobias Rieder have added a spark, and some veterans have been chipping in lately with Mikkel Boedker and Shane Doan getting back on track, and Vermette adding two assists on Friday.
On the other hand, the Coyotes had a chance to thrust themselves atop the Pacific Division with a win over Vancouver on Friday. They could have closed October with a 6-4-1 record and taken pride in the fact that they were in playoff position after one month.
“We talked about growing,” Tippett said. “We know there’s going to be hiccups. Let’s not sugarcoat this. There’s going to be hiccups, but if you look at the start our kids have had, there are games we’ve played very well in and that’s encouraging.”
The long view is the one Tippett and his staff must take with this team. Progress must be the focus for a group whose loftiest stated goal is simply to compete for a playoff spot.
For the next five days, however, it will be difficult to appreciate the early achievements as the Coyotes stew on a pair of losses while awaiting their next opponent.
“It’s miserable losing,” Tippett said. “Until you can win again, it’s miserable.”
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