Arizona Rubber

Arizona’s and New Mexico’s Authoritative Voice of Hockey

Opening up 2021 NHL season, Coyotes ‘created our own breaks,’ but lose in shootout to San Jose


If there is one element facing the Arizona Coyotes in the 2021 NHL season, that would be identified as “a sense of urgency.”

With a reduced 56-game game schedule and play solely within their own division, the Coyotes face a reduction of 26 contests from a regular NHL 82-game slate. That would mean the difference between stringing critical wins together or suffering a fall from grace.

Surely one game does not make a season and though the Coyotes dropped a 4-3 opening-night shootout loss to the San Jose Sharks at Gila River Arena, encouraging signs along with lapses were evident.

For the Coyotes to be successful and make what they envision as a serious run at the Stanley Cup Playoffs, the loss to the Sharks could serve as a blueprint.

One malady which struck the team over the past few seasons was a lack of scoring at critical times. That continued through the opening night loss and if not for scoring two goals in the final 3:30, including Phil Kessel’s dramatic tally with three seconds remaining in regulation time, the experience could foreshadow disaster.

Instead, a slow start accentuated the need for a quick pace but also a factor that coach Rick Tocchet emphasized. That would be the ability to score goals under pressure.

“Many times, you create your own luck,” Kessel said after the game. “I think our team showed a good work ethic and everyone was confident. In this case, we created our own breaks and good teams do that.”

For the Coyotes to be competitive and slice through their opposition, the start they exhibited on opening night must improve. The end was more of an escape valve than a celebration of achievement.

For starters, the defense did not cover in front of the net in the first period and that enabled the Sharks’ Tomas Hertl to score twice from within the shadow of the net. That clearly demonstrated a cardinal rule for defensemen. While leaving Hertl in front, Oliver Ekman-Larsson and Jason Demers, the Arizona defensemen on the ice for both goals, seem to search for the puck. Rather, each could be faulted for leaving the slot essentially unattended and not pursuing bodies in from the net.

If the Coyotes are to support goaltenders Antti Raanta and Darcy Kuemper, the slot should be cleared. That did not happen early in the opening period and placed the Coyotes in an uncompromising position. In the modern NHL game, which emphasizes scoring and puck movement, it’s easy to overlook the essential fundamentals. For the Coyotes to streamline their game, the defense needs to keep the slot clear and clean.

An equally troublesome concern appeared to linger from the past.

That lack of scoring haunted the Coyotes over the past several seasons and that malady continued. Behind by those two Hertl goals, the Coyotes’ offense appeared to disappear. They managed only five shots on net through the opening 15-minutes of the game and failed, as Tocchet’s mantra, to jump into the offensive end. That left a few scoring opportunities and kept the Coyotes from maintaining a competitive edge.

“After that first period, we had a good push,” said Coyotes forward Conor Garland. “We pushed the pace. We were able to clean up some mistakes and then be competitive. Going forward, we need to be competitive and consistent.”

Garland’s observation could serve as a template for the season ahead. Teams that are consistent and able to make adjustments are the ones usually successful. If there was a glimpse into the future from that opening game in mid-January, the Coyotes need to recognize the urgency of the moment, rely on fundamentals, and respond accordingly.

Photo/Norm Hall

— Mark Brown

(Jan. 15, 2021)

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