GLENDALE, Ariz. — Dave Tippett didn’t teach Oliver Ekman-Larsson the single axel jump.
“He’s way above my level,” Tippett said, laughing.
That’s exactly where the Coyotes need their top defenseman to be. Ekman-Larsson has had too many ups and downs this season for a guy the Coyotes need to be the best player on the ice — a guy who should be a perennial Norris Trophy candidate.
Ekman-Larsson was minus-12 on the Coyotes’ recent 0-5 road trip and that number wasn’t misleading when you looked at the amount of mistakes he was making with the puck and in coverage.
“He knows he has to play well as an individual to help the team,” Tippett said. “When the team’s not winning, sometimes he almost ends up trying to do too much.”
With his team coming off a loss to Columbus that Tippett termed “just disgusting,” Ekman-Larsson did a little bit of everything to help lift the Coyotes to a much-needed, 1-0 win over the New York Islanders on Saturday at Gila River Arena.
Ekman-Larsson tried his hand at performance art when he pirouetted away from a hit from New York’s Matt Martin. He made music when he rang a post late in the first period and he scored the only goal of the game on a slick backhand feed from Anthony Duclair, giving him his 20th game-winning goal to pass Teppo Numminen and become the franchise’s career leader for game-winning goals by a defenseman.
“I’ll take that,” Ekman-Larsson said, smiling. “It was an early goal and that was the difference tonight.”
Ekman-Larsson spearheaded a strong effort against New York in which the Coyotes defended the middle of the ice much better, while sustaining a withering forecheck that kept them from defending as much.
There were numerous performances worth a mention against the Islanders. Goalie Louis Domingue posted his first career shutout by stopping 25 Islanders shots, including a key breakaway stop on Casey Cizikas. Martin Hanzal helped shut down New York star John Tavares in Hanzal’s return to the lineup from a lower-body injury. Defenseman Connor Murphy was a physical and positional force. Forward Tobias Rieder was a 200-foot menace and captain Shane Doan rebounded from a performance against Columbus that drew his coach’s ire with a focused and thorough effort.
“Those guys need to be our players that push things along for us and they were all good in that sense,” Tippett said.
At the top of that list is Ekman-Larsson, who was quick to credit his new defensive partner, Murphy, with making life easy on him.
“Everybody wants to play better and it starts with me,” he said. “I have to play better. I have to be a leader for this group here.”
Like Ekman-Larsson, the youth-laden Coyotes have been up and down this season. Their defensive star will play a critical role in establishing a more consistent effort from his team.
“It means a lot for the confidence in this dressing room,” he said of the win. “It’s nice to get two points at home in front of our fans. They’ve been unbelievable all year for us. I just hope we can regroup and get two more points before Christmas.”