While it looked like the Coyotes might have checked out for the All-Star break after two periods against the Edmonton Oilers on Tuesday, Phoenix turned around on Wednesday and played inspired hockey, in their 5-2 drubbing of the Colorado Avalanche, to round out the "first half" of the season.
Those two games alone essentially sum up the Coyotes' season to this point. While they've managed to string some wins together, Phoenix has spent much of the season mired in inconsistency. Despite the struggles, the Coyotes remain in good standing in a tight Western Conference. With 59 points, the Yotes currently sit in sixth in the West, three points ahead of my hometown Chicago Blackhawks for that spot.
While 51 games may be a bit too late to grade the Coyotes to this point, it's a perfect time to examine the keys for Phoenix in the final 31 games. After the jump of course.
1. Keith Yandle - Yandle has been a pleasant surprise for not only the Coyotes, but for the NHL as a whole. On a blueline plagued by injury and inconsistency, Yandle seems to get better on a nightly basis. His recent nine-game point streak, which is still active, has taken him to the top of the charts among D-men. With 44 points, Yandle ranks ahead of the likes of Detroit's Nicklas Lidstrom, Atlanta's Dustin Byfuglien, and Pittsburgh's Kris Letang. If Yandle keeps his play anywhere near the level that it is currently at, he'll be a Norris Trophy candidate come summertime, even if he does play in a small market like Phoenix.
2. Young forwards - I realize this doesn't narrow it down on a team with a surplus of youth, but we know Shane Doan, Ray Whitney, and usually Scottie Upshall are going to come to play every single night. It's the youngsters like Lee Stempniak, Lauri Korpikoski, and Kyle Turris, all of whom struggled for long stretches this season, that will be crucial for Phoenix in the final 31 games. The good news for Phoenix is that since the New Year, all three of these guys have been gaining confidence almost exponentially, making them very scary for the older, slower teams come playoff time.
3. Health - This is a given for any team, but the injury bug has been floating around the Phoenix locker room much more often these days. Ed Jovanovski has missed time with an upper-body injury. Newest acquisition Michal Rozsival has yet to play a game at 100 percent for the Yotes. Shane Doan had to leave last Saturday's game against Los Angeles after barreling into the boards. Vernon Fiddler is still on IR with an upper-body injury of his own. The All-Star break comes at a perfect time for these walking wounded, and it shouldn't be too much longer before the Coyotes can ice a completely healthy team.
4. Defense - On a team with so much defensive depth, this is a group that has struggled mightily at times this season. However, the exceptional play of Yandle, along with the steady play veterans like Adrian Aucoin (plus-18) and the youngster Oliver Ekman-Larsson, have this unit improving. There still remains a few issues in chemistry that have led to the occasional breakdown. Though these breakdowns are small in number, they've cost the Coyotes wins in recent weeks, including the MLK Day loss to the San Jose Sharks and Tuesday's loss to the Oilers. Defensive consistency is definitely something that head coach Dave Tippett will need to address moving forward. Which brings us to our final key...
5. Consistency - When it rains for the Coyotes, it always seems to pour. What I mean by that is that even though the Coyotes are capable of piecing together multiple wins, one loss always seems to be followed by more. In November/December, the Yotes had a stretch where the couldn't net more than a goal per game. Though recent weeks have seen an end to these offensive inadequacies, those problems seem to have shifted to the defensive end of the ice. Perhaps a completely healthy blueline unit will improve things.
There's little doubt that, when playing up to their potential, these Coyotes are capable of skating with anyone in the league. As cliché as it might sound, the Coyotes biggest enemy remains themselves. We've seen how they play when their game is on, when their game is off, and when they shoot themselves in the foot with stupid mistakes. Consistency is the name of the game for the Coyotes in the home stretch. If they can avoid those defensive breakdowns and play with intensity on a nightly basis, it's going to be a hell of a stretch run for the Desert Dogs.
And they might even gain a fan or two along the way.