What do the Phoenix Coyotes need to do to stay in playoff contention?

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(photo credit: Noah Graham/NHL via Getty Images)

To call the Phoenix Coyotes inconsistent up to this point in the season is a dramatic short-selling.

Since exploding out the gate with a 14-4-3 record, the Coyotes are 8-12-6 since then and on the outside looking in for a playoff spot. Checking out as high as second in the ESPN NHL Power Rankings, the Coyotes now find themselves 20th in the same list.

Not that I disagree with that assessment. The Coyotes quite simply haven’t been playing winning hockey these past couple weeks, and 20th could actually be generous.

The problem I have, though, is that this funk is completely uncharacteristic of the Phoenix Coyotes of the past couple seasons. Bad penalties, lax defensive efforts and silly turnovers in the defensive zone have resulted in loss after loss after loss. All of those things are not commonplace for the Coyotes under head coach Dave Tippett, and the prolonged stretch of subpar hockey is mind-boggling for just that reason.

The silver lining in all of this, however, is that there still are games left to play. The season doesn’t end tomorrow, so the Coyotes still have a chance to state their case and climb up the standings. As the LA Kings of a couple seasons ago can attest, making the playoffs is the most important thing to making a Stanley Cup run.

With the Olympic break coming up, Dave Tippett and his Coyotes squad have plenty of time to do some soul searching for the home-stretch. The Coyotes have the tools necessary to make the playoffs, but they will need some things to come together.

Here’s what needs to happen for the Coyotes to stay on the playoff prowl.

Receive elite goaltending out of Mike Smith

Mike Smith (photo credit: Matt York/AP)

Mike Smith (photo credit: Matt York/AP)

Coyotes fans saw a preview of what Mike Smith has to do moving forward this past Thursday with a 1-0 shutout win over the Canucks. The 29-save shutout was his first of the season and his first since April 6th of 2013.

Coming into that game, Smitty was in a funk, like the rest of the team. He wasn’t making saves he was supposed to and had lost five straight games. His goals-against-average on the year was flirting dangerously in the unacceptable range of 3.00. You hate to bring in his contract figures, but at $5.6 million a year Smith is making too much money to be below average for the Coyotes.

But the shutout of the Canucks is a giant leap in the right direction. Much like the 2011-2012 season that saw the Ontario native rock a 2.21 goals-against average and a sparkling .930 save percentage, Smith clearly has the talent to carry the Coyotes to the Promised Land. Phoenix needs that Mike Smith if they want to make it to the playoffs and subsequently avoid an early exit.

Stay healthy

Thursday’s win was monumental for more than just busting the slump. It was also the return of defenseman Zbynek Michalek, the top-line partner of Oliver Ekman-Larsson and the Coyotes’ best shutdown defenseman. He is a vital cog in the Phoenix Coyote machine, and his absence was easily noticeable for a team starving for some defensive help.

His return also signaled the first time in a long time that the Coyotes have had everyone healthy. When it wasn’t Michalek, it was captain Shane Doan, or forward Lauri Korpikoski or defenseman Derek Morris. It is no coincidence that Smith’s first shutout of the season was with a fully healthy squad in front of him.

Injuries are a part of the game, and it’s lofty to expect that the Coyotes will muscle through the second half of the season totally unscathed. But when all healthy hands are on deck, the Coyotes have the depth and personnel to play their game well and hang with the big boys Anaheim and Chicago when the games start to matter.

Keep scoring from all over

(photo credit: Matt York/AP)

(photo credit: Matt York/AP)

In seasons past, the Coyotes were a defensively staunch team that struggled to score goals on a consistent basis. This season, it is the complete opposite. While it has come at the expense of reliable defense, the Coyotes have welcomed their newfound offense with open arms. Their 2.81 goals per game as a team is good for ninth best in the NHL.

Even more impressive is that there is no one true star for the Desert Dogs. 13 players on the roster have at least 12 points on the season, and seven of them have more than 25 on the season. When the offense is coming from all over like that, it becomes difficult for other teams to defend, especially in a playoff-type setting.

While Phoenix certainly welcomes the near-point-per-game pace of Radim Vrbata, Shane Doan and Mike Ribeiro, it is secondary scoring that will keep the Coyotes in the playoff hunt.

 

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