2011-2012 season preview: Phoenix Coyotes

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2010-2011 record: 43-26-13, 99 points; 3rd in Pacific, 6th in West

Playoffs: Lost to Detroit 4-0 in Western quarterfinals

The Coyotes have surprised the critics in each of the last two seasons. Two years ago, many people picked the Coyotes to finish last in the league — only for the team to win 50 games and earn home-ice advantage in the first round of the playoffs. Many thought it was a fluke and doubted Phoenix once again last season, and again the Coyotes surprised the doubters, producing a 99-point season, and another trip to the playoffs. But if the Coyotes are to make the playoffs this time around, it could be their most surprising feat yet.

Offense

There isn’t much offensive firepower amongs the forwards. Someone looking at the team in a negative light would point out that Phoenix only had a single player that scored 20 goals last season. Then again, an optimist would point out that the team had 10 players who scored double-digit goals for the team a season ago. To understand this simple stat is to understand the way the Coyotes are built: they don’t have any superstars who are going to carry the offensive load. Just like all players are expected to buy into Dave Tippett’s team defense philosophy, all forwards are expected to chip in on the offensive end as well. This season, Daymond Langkow, Boyd Gordon and Raffi Torres will be expected to pick up where departed forwards Lee Stempniak, Vernon Fiddler and Eric Belanger left off.

Defense

The team has made a living over the past couple of years by keeping the puck out of their own net. Last season, Keith Yandle emerged as an elite defenseman and signed a five-year contract extension in the offseason to prove it. He’ll be expected to play about 25 minutes per game as he helps the Coyotes on the offensive side of the puck as much as the defensive side. Adrian Aucoin, Rusty Klesla, and Derek Morris all provide depth, but it’s the youth that should make Phoenix fans excited. After splitting time between Phoenix and San Antonio last season, former No. 6 overall pick Oliver Ekman-Larsson will start the season with the big club. He has all the tools and the team fully expects the young Swede to develop into a top-pairing defenseman in the near future.

Goalies

Goaltending is the 800-pound elephant in the room for the Coyotes. Over the last two successful seasons, Ilya Bryzgalov has been one of the best netminders in the game. The Coyotes sent Bryzgalov to the Flyers when they couldn’t reach an agreement with the pending unrestricted free agent and turned their attention to the open market for a replacement. The good thing is that they were able to acquire their No. 1 option on July 1 when they nabbed former Lightning goaltender Mike Smith. The bad thing is that very few people outside of Phoenix think Smith will be able to replicate Bryzgalov’s success in the desert.

For Smith’s part, he had success when he played under Dave Tippett in the Dallas organization. The team likes his style: he’s a big goaltender who can play the puck extremely well. He’ll need to have a career season — otherwise the Coyotes will suffer a substantial drop off in goaltending.

Coaching

If it weren’t for Shane Doan, then Tippett would be the face of the franchise. The defensive philosophy that he brought with him from the Stars two seasons ago is exactly what the organization needed to survive. Despite having one of the lowest payrolls in the league, Tippett consistently finds a way to get the most out of his roster on a nightly basis.

Breakout candidate

The organization thinks that Mikkel Boedker is poised to break out this season. Last season, he split time between the Coyotes and the minors, but with a new contract and a more mature game, he could be set up to take the next step in the NHL. Boedker plays with incredible speed and with Stempniak moving on to the Calgary Flames, there’s a spot on the right wing for the young Dane. He may never develop into the 30-goal scorer that people envisioned when he was drafted, but don’t be surprised if he scores double-digit goals, plays a strong two-way game, and creates energy for his team with his speed.

Best-case scenario

If the recent past has told us anything, it’s that the best-case scenario for the Coyotes is a solid playoff spot. If Smith can come in and thrive like the team expects him to, he could minimize the pain from losing Bryzgalov. If Langkow can come in and stay healthy for a full 82-game season, Torres can find chemistry with a center like Gordon, and Oliver Ekman-Larsson can start filling his immense potential, the Coyotes could make it back to the playoffs for the third consecutive season.

Reality

The reality is the Coyotes have a gigantic hole in net they have to fill. In fact, the void in the Phoenix net may be the most devastating loss for any team this summer. The Coyotes are asking Smith to walk into a new team and have a career season just to maintain their success from last season. They had a Norris Trophy candidate put up 59 points from the blue line and will need the same kind of production again this season. The forwards will have to continue to play an even stronger two-way game while scoring a little more to compensate for the new netminder. There are just too many questions the Coyotes to answer to put them into a playoff spot. This could be the season where it all catches up with them — last place in the Pacific and one of the bottom feeders in the Western Conference.

The Buzzer: Ovechkin is clutch

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Two games on Thursday

Bruins 3, Maple Leafs 1 (Bruins lead series 3-1)

The Boston Bruins continue to show that they can survive – if not thrive – with key players out of the lineup. They don’t get much more “key” than Patrice Bergeron, who was unable to suit up for Game 4. Even so, Tuukka Rask made some crucial saves and the Bruins connected on two 2-on-1 rushes to snag a 3-1 series lead. The Maple Leafs must grapple with a lot of uncomfortable questions as they see their season slip to the brink of elimination.

Capitals 4, Blue Jackets 1 (Series tied 2-2)

This game was all about patterns continuing, or breaking.

Continuing: The road team winning. The away team has won all four contests during this series, so this one returns to Washington with the two teams now tied up 2-2. It’s also another instance of Alex Ovechkin being sneaky-clutch, although many people will disagree because of team results. Washington’s starting to pull away in terms of puck possession during the series, and that continued on Thursday, too.

Breaking: For the first time in the series, the game ended in regulation. It wasn’t all that close, either, as the Caps won 4-1 and were safe even considering one empty-netter.

[NBC’s Stanley Cup Playoff Hub]

Three Stars

1. Tuukka Rask, Boston Bruins – There will be talk of Bergeron, Auston Matthews not being able to score, Mike Babcock’s decisions, and other factors from Game 4. Rask helped to push those discussions to the forefront – rather than talk about which team has the edge if they ended up tied – as he was sharp on Thursday. Rask stopped 31 out of 32 shots, factoring heavily in Boston building a 3-1 series lead against Toronto.

2. Evgeny Kuznetsov, Washington Capitals – After scoring two goals in Game 1, Kuznetsov had been held silent by the Bruins in Games 2 and 3. The Russian center made up for lost time in Game 4, scoring an empty-netter and two assists in that 4-1 win. Both of his assists were primary helpers, while he checked many other boxes by winning more than half of his draws (10 of 18), generating a +3 rating, and firing four shots on goal.

3. Alex Ovechkin, Capitals – Ovechkin fired a shot on Sergei Bobrovsky, which created a rebound opportunity for T.J. Oshie during a Washington power play, a goal that ended up being the game-winner. Ovechkin also scored from the right face-off circle for an important insurance goal. Ovechkin fired five SOG and was a +1 in Game 4.

Factoids

There’s plenty of focus on Bergeron being out and Marchand scoring/agitating, but don’t forget about David Pastrnak‘s brilliance.

Again, Alex Ovechkin is more clutch than people realize. By scoring the 49th playoff goal of his career, Ovechkin tied Henri Richard for 60th in NHL history. You may remember Henri as a) Maurice Richard’s brother and b) the guy who won the Stanley Cup 11 times.

Friday’s games

Philadelphia Flyers at Pittsburgh Penguins, 7 p.m. ET, NBCSN
Minnesota Wild at Winnipeg Jets, 7:30 p.m. ET, USA Network
Colorado Avalanche at Nashville Predators, 9:30 p.m. ET, NBCSN

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

Capitals tie series with Blue Jackets

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In Game 4, the Washington Capitals showed their heart by not working overtime.

The Capitals dropped both of their home games to start their first-round series against the Columbus Blue Jackets, opening the floodgates for people to dust off their favorite, cruel jokes about this team. They’ll return home with those one-liners drying up, though.

After falling behind 2-0 in the series, the Capitals flipped the script to tie it up 2-2 after beating the Blue Jackets both times in Columbus. The symmetry wasn’t complete, however; while Washington continued the series trend of overtime nail-biters by winning beyond regulation in Game 3, they made no mistake about winning Game 4 by a score of 4-1.

[NBC’s Stanley Cup Playoff Hub]

This wasn’t a case where the Bruins got the bounces and the finishes to win. The Capitals have shown signs of dominance even in defeats during this series, but they really smothered the Blue Jackets in Game 4.

The Capitals generated a 33-24 shots on goal edge, won about two-thirds of the faceoffs, and generally carried the play by every metric.

Tom Wilson making it 1-0 was valuable, and jokes about blown 2-0 leads aside, T.J. Oshie‘s eventual game-winner was important during the second period. Alex Ovechkin‘s goal from his opposite office widened the gap too much for an overmatched Blue Jackets team, even with Boone Jenner scoring and giving Columbus a brief boost.

With a goal and an assist in Game 4, this is yet another reminder that Ovechkin is a playoff performer, even if his team isn’t always there with him. After Washington went down 2-0 against Columbus, Ovechkin said “it’s going to be fun when we bounce back and tie the series,” and that’s exactly the situation Washington is in after … whatever the opposite of “holding serve” is.

Of course, people will quickly forget this triumph-within-the-series if the Capitals ultimately bow out of the first round, anyway.

The Caps must feel really good about their collective play as they aim to become the first team to win at home in this series in Game 5. Their power play has been productive, playing tight defense, getting scoring from Ovechkin/others, and Braden Holtby looks poised in regaining his usual spot in net. It’s the sort of stretch that changes the Capitals’ narrative from “here we go again” to “could this be the year we finally make a run?”

With this series now essentially becoming a best two-out-of-three clash, the disposition could easily go from sunny back to gloomy, but give this beleaguered group credit for keeping cool heads and making this anyone’s game once again.

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

Bruins push Leafs to brink

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The Boston Bruins found themselves on the wrong end of plenty of stats in Game 4, but even with Patrice Bergeron on the shelf, they won 3-1 to push the Toronto Maple Leafs to the brink of elimination.

Boston took a 3-1 series lead with tonight’s win despite Toronto generating a 32-21 shots on goal advantage, hogging the puck, and holding home-ice advantage.

[NBC’s Stanley Cup Playoff Hub]

Goaltending was one big area of advantage for the Bruins. Tuukka Rask was forced to make some tough saves as Mitch Marner and other Leafs players created plenty of chances. One cannot help but wonder if fatigue is a bit of a factor for workhorse Maple Leafs goalie Frederik Andersen, meanwhile, as he’d likely love to have this Torey Krug goal back:

That early 1-0 lead provided a cushion for the Bruins to adjust to life without Bergeron (again), although Tomas Plekanec did tie things up. Ultimately, the Bruins were able to cash in on two 2-on-1 rushes, with Brad Marchand burying a tremendous setup by David Pastrnak for the game-winner and Jake DeBrusk finding the net after a great feed by David Krejci (who has absorbed some criticism for his play lately).

The two goals were remarkably similar in exhibiting the Bruins’ smarts and finish, along with the Maple Leafs lacking in a few areas on defense, as Nikita Zaitsev and Roman Polak were exposed (among others). Here’s that Marchang GWG:

Game 5 shifts back to Boston on Saturday. You can watch that game on CNBC, with puck drop slated for 8 p.m. ET.

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

Bruins without Bergeron vs. Leafs in Game 4

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The Boston Bruins rolled through much of the regular season despite injuries, even to key players like Patrice Bergeron. The fact that they’re unfortunately experienced playing without Bergeron is probably the only silver lining regarding his late scratch heading into Game 4.

The Bruins announced that Bergeron is day-to-day with what they’re deeming an upper-body injury, so Riley Nash slips into Bergeron’s spot between Brad Marchand and David Pastrnak.

[NBC’s Stanley Cup Playoff Hub]

This stands as an obvious opportunity for Auston Matthews to roam more freely against the Bruins and a chance for the Maple Leafs to tie this series in front of their home fans.

NBC Sports Boston’s Joe Haggerty makes a good point that Bergeron missing Game 4 is especially troubling since the Bruins played Game 3 on Monday, gaining an extra off day between contests.

Bergeron generated five assists through the first three games of this series, including four helpers in Game 2. He was limited to 64 regular-season games in 2017-18, falling just short of a point-per-game with 63. Naturally, his all-around game goes beyond goals and assists, so this hurts badly for the Bruins, whether they had some experience playing without him or not.

As of this writing, the two teams are tied up 1-1. Click here for the livestream link.

This news comes not that long after news surfaced that Bergeron’s once again been named a finalist for the Selke.

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.