Coyotes at Blue Jackets
When: Saturday, 5 p.m.
Where: Nationwide Arena, Columbus, Ohio
TV: FOX Sports Arizona Plus
Radio: ESPN 620 AM
Blue Jackets — F David Clarkson (lower body) and F Alex Wenneberg (foot) are on injured reserve
Coyotes — D Nicklas Grossmann (lower body) and F Steve Downie (upper body) are day to day. F Joe Vitale (orbital bone) is on injured reserve.
Scouting the Blue Jackets: Things haven’t gone as planned for Columbus since the Jackets made a big splash by dealing for talented Chicago wing Brandon Saad in the offseason. Columbus sits dead last in the NHL standings at 5-12, and is 0-6 at home. … Saad had six goals and 10 points in 16 games after signing a six-year, $36 million contract. After an 0-7 start, the Jackets fired coach Todd Richards and hired mercurial coach John Tortorella. … Veteran F Scott Hartnell leads the team with 13 points while F Boone Jenner is tied with Saad for the team-lead in goals with eight. … G Sergei Bobrovsky has been atrocious with a 3.44 GAA and an .888 save percentage.
GLENDALE, Ariz. — Coyotes captain Shane Doan was largely unimpressed when a reporter noted that the Coyotes were one point out of first place in the Pacific Division after Thursday’s win over Edmonton.
“What are we, 15, 16 games in?” he asked. “When we’ve got 15 or 16 games to go that would be a little different.”
Even so, Doan had to admit the Coyotes’ current predicament is a far cry from what most pundits predicted at the start of the season.
“It’s a lot better than being at the bottom,” he said. “It’s a lot better than having to chase.”
As the Coyotes head out on a four-game road trip through Columbus, New York (Islanders), Montreal and Winnipeg, they are tied for the NHL’s third-best road record (6-2-1), they are an impressive 5-1 against their Pacific Division rivals and 6-2 against the Western Conference.
After a lull that dropped them back to .500 and had many concerned their goaltender had lost his early-season mojo, the Coyotes have won three straight games. While these projections are largely meaningless in November, if the season had ended Thursday, the Coyotes would have owned home-ice advantage in a first-round playoff matchup with Vancouver.
“We’ve done a lot of learning over the past month or so and the last three games have shown the growth of this team,” said goalie Mike Smith, who has stopped 60 of 63 shots in his last two starts. “The young players are continuing to put the puck in the net and contribute and veteran guys are stepping up and making good plays for us, too.”
Coach Dave Tippett noted how his middle-aged group (in NHL years) that includes forward Mikkel Boedker, center Martin Hanzal and defenseman Oliver Ekman-Larsson, is driving the team right now.
As he drove across southern Ontario on Friday to watch games over the next couple days involving prospects Dylan Strome and Brendan Perlini, however, general manager Don Maloney couldn’t deny the greater optimism that the future is fueling after a long, dark 2014-15 season.
“We’ve got half a dozen to eight players playing well — leading their teams in scoring or at the top of their leagues scoring,” Maloney said. “You hope they all pan out, but even if half a dozen do we’ll be in great shape.”
Tippett has harped on the need for growth so much that it is seeping into the players’ lexicon, but the Coyotes’ coach also preaches accountability.
“The thing I like about us right now is on the bench, you can really see guys are pushing each other to do the right things,” he said. “Depending on score, depending on situation changes… little details that need to get done if you’re going to be a good team; our team is working hard to try to do those and we’ve got some young players working hard to try to do those.”
The Coyotes are also gaining confidence from a recent stretch of rallies and their overall record, even if that success can be fleeting.
“When you get the results from doing things right, that builds confidence but you’re only as good as your last game,” Tippett said. “You’ve got to go into the next game and use that confidence to find a way to win again.”
Maloney said it is still early to talk about acquiring more players for this group, but both management and ownership have said the team has the flexibility to do so if needed.
“We know we’re going to have some trying times going forward as we get into the guts of the season so I think it’s premature to even talk about what we might add right now,” Maloney said. “One thing we don’t want to do is stunt the growth process so if we add a veteran piece that pushes back a young player, that doesn’t interest me at all.
“But we’re also in the winning business and we need to develop good habits. You do that in a winning environment. It would be the ideal situation to get to the trade deadline where we’re in a position to tweak this roster for the playoffs.”
There are 66 games left. The normal ebb and flow of a season will alter perceptions numerous times along that route before the Coyotes reach the finish line. At least the perception is a positive one right now and the Coyotes are achieving a preseason goal of staying in the playoff conversation.
“Hopefully, we’re in the hunt and we’re battling it out,” Doan said of the final weeks of the season. “For the lead in our division would be great, but we just want to get into the dance.”
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