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The Arizona Coyotes came into the 4 game set against the Vegas Golden Knights sporting a 1-0-1 record after splitting games against the San Jose Sharks. Grabbing 3 out of a total of 4 points along with the promising looks of Kessel, Keller and Co. had the Coyotes heading into the gauntlet against Vegas appearing ready.
4 games down, the Coyotes mustered up only 2 points out of a possible 8. While expecting much more than that would be foolish against the powerhouse Golden Knights, the Coyotes tossed away points in the dying seconds of the final game for the set. They found ways to revert to bad old habits throughout these 4 games which can be a sign of trouble as we move on into the meat of the schedule.
In the opening game, the Coyotes found ways to drive pressure jumping out 2-0 before shutting it off and in typical fashion turned off what was working and fell into a defensive style trap while Vegas brought the house and netted 4 straight to take over the game. Kyle Capobianco made his season debut taking a slot on defense for the injured Oliver Ekman-Larsson and struggled along with Jason Demers and Alex Goligoski who have not faired well on the backend so far.
The second game saw Vegas jump out early with 3 straight goals. The Coyotes were unable to stay out of the box or cash in on their own opportunities (4 total) and never able to get themselves into the game despite Kessel netting his 4th of the season.
The third game would see the Coyotes play their best yet of the young season, pouncing on the Golden Knights with relentless attack and stifling defense in the response game. It was also Victor Soderstrom’s NHL debut and he had a strong outing playing just over 15 minutes after taking over for Capobianco who struggled in his 2 games. Connor Garland continued to show why he is the best Coyote forward netting 3 points in the win and the Coyotes appeared to have found a winning combination in the Garland, Schmaltz, Caggiula line who are all buzzing so far this year. The main difference in game 3 versus the first two – the Coyotes did not fall back on their heels for the third and try to defend for the win. Darcy Kuemper also looked like Darcy Kuemper from the past seasons dazzling in the win. While his previous three starts have been not ideal, he made several big saves in the win to keep the Coyotes pumping.
The final game was the tightest and most evenly competitive game of the set. Both Marc-Andre Fleury and Kuemper starred in the game making big saves when needed albeit any major breakdowns from either side were far and few between. Early in the third, Kessel had a chance to add to his strong start off a breakway on former teamate Fleury but was stopped trying to stuff the puck through the 5-hole. More telling on that play was Clayton Keller coasting in the background and not driving to the net to try and stuff in the loose puck before Fleury was able to grab it. Not hustling and a misread of a play would cost the Coyotes at the end off what looked to be a razor thin close icing call. Tuch would pivot at center and toss the puck behind the net, with Jakob Chychrun taking the wrong side around the net and not hustling to get back, Jonathan Marchessault beat him to the puck and threw it out front to William Karlsson who was left alone by Goligoski to snap the puck home with 43 seconds left, effectively ending a chance for the Coyotes to come away with a minimum 3 points. While there was a ton of confusion both on and off the ice with players yelling “Ice!!” in that moment you have to play through the whistle and unfortunately it burned the Coyotes.
For the Coyotes to have success this season and take a shot at hitting the fourth spot in the West, they need to get a few things straightened out. The collapsing nature of third periods for the Coyotes has to become a thing of the past. The system under head coach Rick Tocchet by design historically has not worked and will continue to not work, especially against teams like Vegas or Colorado. Clayton Keller who started strong against San Jose all but disappeared in these past 4 games and that cannot happen. Keller has to be one of the top forwards going especially in big games. He cannot be neutralized entirely or pushed off the puck in battles along the boards and made to be a non factor in the games. The defense needs to tighten up more as they did in the fourth game and Kuemper needs to play as he did in the last 2 games of this set.
On the positive front, newcomers Derick Brassard, Drake Caggiula and Tyler Pitlick have been solid contributors to the lineup. Add in Phil Kessel continuing a strong start and the line of Garland, Schmaltz, and the above mentioned Caggiula having dynamic showings, the Coyotes can do some damage if they do not allow the issues noted above to become a theme for the season.