The Canadiens will try to break their two game losing streak against the Coyotes in Glendale, AZ on Thursday. Winners of four out of their last five, the ‘Yotes’ are coming off an impressive 4-2 win last Saturday against the Oilers, who just beat Montreal on Tuesday nght.
At 7-4-2, they are mid-pack in the West, sitting in seventh. They have scored 38 goals on the season, three more than the Habs, and allowed 36, three less than Montreal. The key stat for them so far has been scoring first. When they do, the Coyotes are 6-0-2. And they know how to hold a third period lead. They have not lost in seven games in which they led going into the final 20 minutes.
They have an average power play (8-for-46, 17.4 percent, 15th in the league), but they are well above average on the penalty kill (42-for-48. 87.5 percent, 8th in the league). The real story is this: They gave up three power play goals in the first four opportunities to San Jose in the season opener and since then have killed 41 of their last 44 penalties, which is 93.2 percent. If you threw out those first four attempts, they’d be tied with the Penguins for the NHL’s top PK percentage.
Lauri Korpikoski, Boyd Gordon, Radim Vrbata and (when he’s healthy) Martin Hanzal have been their top penalty killing forwards.
Dave Tippett’s team doesn’t waver much in their approach. They play a structured, defensively sound game, have a good amount of speed and, without a superstar scorer, have usually gotten it done with a balanced attack and making the most of their opportunities.
“We got the puck on net early; we got it behind them early,” defenseman Adrian Aucoin said after beating the Oilers. “It was a textbook Dave Tippett game. He implements such an easy game for us to play. We don’t have the big names or the superstars, but we find ways because of our system and the way he demands that we play.”
Without much fanfare and with a limited budget (since the club is still owned by the league), GM Don Maloney had numerous holes to fill on his roster this summer and has done an admirable job. His most interesting free agent pick-up could be goalie Mike Smith, who looked done at times when he played for the Lightning last season and was briefly sent in the AHL. But he’s benefited from working with goalie coach Sean Burke and he’s 6-2-2 on the season, allowing two goals or less in six of his first 10 starts. His GAA dropped to 2.36 after Saturday’s win and his save percentage is .926.
In Keith Yandle and Derek Morris, they have a tandem that moves the puck extremely well, Yandle becoming a star last season thanks to his explosive skating and offensive instincts.
Tippett has put together an effective shutdown tandem with veteran Rusty Klesla and David Schlemko, who was trying to break into the top six when veteran Michal Rozsival suffered a concussion in the season opener. Rozival has just started skating again this week. Schlemko leads the team with a plus-9. Klesla is plus-7.
Thirty-nine year old Ray Whitney, now in his 19th season, leads the Coyotes in scoring with six goals and 14 points in 13 games, hoping to avoid another banged up season. He had his third multi-point game of the season against Edmonton, been playing on a line with Radim Vrbata recently and Gordon, one of four centres who Maloney acquired since last season. The other centres are Daymond Lankow, Cal O’Reilly and former Hab Kyle Chipchura, who began the campaign in the AHL.
Gordon may be bumped off that trio and down to the third line in favor of Hanzal, who seems set to return from a lower body injury on Thursday. That would likely set off a chain reaction that could land Chipchura back in Portland, Maine, where he spent most of the season so far, rather than play against his old team. He had recently been on a fourth line with rugged Raffi Torres and Patrick O’Sullivan.
Here’s how they lined up against the Oilers, and if Hanzal returns, he’ll skate with Whitney and Vrbata, with Gordon and O’Reilly likely each moving down a notch and Chipchura out of the picture.
Lauri Korpikoski, Daymond Langkow, Shane Doan
Ray Whitney, Boyd Gordon, Radim Vrbata
Taylor Pyatt, Cal O’Reilly, Mikkel Boedker
Raffi Torres, Kyle Chipchura, Patrick O’Sullivan
Keith Yandle, Derek Morris
Rostislav Klesla, David Schlemko
Oliver Ekman-Larsson, Adrian Aucoin