At the Start, Coyotes Develop Defensive Issues

Mark BrownContributor IJanuary 21, 2013

To be successful, the Coyotes defense needs to play better in front of goalie Mike Smith.
To be successful, the Coyotes defense needs to play better in front of goalie Mike Smith.Christian Petersen/Getty Images

Through the opening two games of the newly-minted season, the Phoenix Coyotes need to develop a learning curve.

For a team which prided itself on defense, nearly by default, they have not performed up to a reliable standard. Through their initial two contests here in the opening week, the Coyotes proved quite vulnerable on defense, and prone to turnovers.

In dropping its home opener 6-4 to Chicago before a standing-room only crowd of 17,363 at Arena Sunday night, the defense appeared to let down goaltender Mike Smith. Despite allowing 10 goals in his initial two games, Smith told reporters after the Hawks contest that success or failure, “starts with me.”

Last season, the most the Coyotes surrendered in back-to-back games was nine goals. That was a 6-2 defeat at Anaheim on Jan. 18 and a 3-2 loss to Detroit at home on Jan. 19.

Like all good teams, and the Coyotes believe they are “a good team,” its’ mission here at the outset is to emphasize a defensive core and foundation. To be honest, this team will not lead the NHL in scoring and will not be among the top scoring teams. The way to win to is cut down on errors and capitalize when given an opportunity.

After the Chicago defeat, coach Dave Tippett said that “scoring goals is nice but if we rely solely on scoring, that’s a recipe for failure.”

To survive in the highly competitive Western Conference, the Coyotes need to play defense, and that has not happened through its first two games.

“Plain and simple, we didn’t execute,” said captain Shane Doan, who played in his 1,200 NHL game Sunday against Chicago. “We had poor puck judgment and poor puck assessment. Right now, we need to make better decisions with the puck.”

The Coyotes were particularly vulnerable in the slot.

For a team which says it will likely live or die by its defense, players were caught in giveaways and that left portions of the ice unattended. That included the exposed area in front of Smith, and the Blackhawks scored three critical goals in the second period all within 15 feet of Phoenix netminder.

The telling moment came late in the middle session. When the Blackhawks scored twice within 50 seconds, the tallies exposed the Phoenix weakness of leaving Smith alone against NHL sharpshooters.

First, Marian Hossa skated from the right face-off circle into the slot and ripped an uncontested wrist shot in the back of the net. Less than one minute later, left wing Victor Stalberg fired a wrist shot in behind Smith from a wide-opened slot area.

“If there are mistakes, I need to bail out my teammates and, in the two games, I haven’t done that,” Smith said. “That’s what I’m here to do. It all starts with me and I need to get back to what I was doing last year. Starting (Monday), I need to practice harder and stay sharper.”

The start for Smith is inauspicious.

In his first start for Phoenix last season, the 30-year-old goalie allowed six goals during a 6-3 defeat to the Sharks. Yet, Smith recovered and allowed three goals in his next two games on his the way to a steady 2.21 goals against average for the year.

“When you score seven goals in two games, like we did, you should win those games,” Smith added. “Right now, goals are going in from all angles and that has to stop.”


Mark Brown is a Featured Columnist for Bleacher Report. Unless otherwise noted, all quotes were obtained first-hand.