After disappointing 2013 seasons, the Phoenix Coyotes and their opening night opponent, New York Rangers, want to start off the new season on a high note. Each club made some important adjustments in the offseason, and tonight's game will be the first chance to see how well those transactions paid off.
The New York Rangers
The Rangers are a very different team from the one that last played the Coyotes in January 2012. After an underwhelming second round exit to the Boston Bruins, the Rangers decided to part ways with coach John Tortorella. In an intriguing, yet unsurprising coincidence, they ended up hiring former Vancouver Canucks head coach Alain Vigneault. (Tortorella ended up replacing Vigneault in Vancouver)
From a personnel standpoint, most of the essential players from last season are still with the Blueshirts. New York will field elite scoring talent in Rick Nash, and a returning Derek Stepan, after signing him to a two-year bridge contract. Benoit Pouliot was brought in for depth, and could be an intriguing component.
The Rangers did lose a few players though. They shipped off Marian Gaborik to the Columbus Blue Jackets at the trade deadline, and lost Ryane Clowe to the New Jersey Devils. Neither one performed to the level the Rangers hoped they would last season.
Part of the Rangers problem has been a lack of offensive production at even strength and on the power play (sound familiar?). The Rangers were 15th in the league last season in goals per game with 2.62, which while manageable, is not Cup contending. Their power play percentage was just 15.7%, good enough for 23rd in the NHL. Considering the offensive talent at the top of the rosters, these numbers are a bit surprising.
What makes New York perennially good is the play of stellar netminder and heartthrob Henrik Lundqvist. As a full time starter, Lundqvist either led the league, or placed in the top five, in goals allowed, save percentage, and wins. He is a Vezina Trophy winner for a reason.
Like New York, the Coyotes would like to solve their offensive issues and make a jump back into Stanley Cup contention after playing in the Conference Finals two seasons ago. To that end, playmaker Mike Ribeiro was signed and former Canucks assistant Newell Brown was hired to improve the team's 25th ranked power play. While preseason isn't exactly a predictor of future success, the team's 9-29 power play conversion rate is pretty respectable.
The Coyotes may have some larger problems on the defensive end. Faceoff specialist, penalty killer, and shot-blocker extraordinaire Boyd Gordon took his talents to Edmonton in the offseason. Phoenix will replace long-time back-up Jason LaBarbera with former San Jose Shark Thomas Greiss. While both Gordon and LaBarbera filled depth roles during their time in the desert, their success on the PK and in giving Mike Smith rest will be missed.
Keys to the Game
1. Start Off Strong. There's plenty of excitement in the air, with new ownership and new free agents in Phoenix. The crowd at Jobing.com Arena wants to cheer for this team. An early goal or some good solid offensive play will help establish the tone and keep the crowd in the game.
2. Zone Entries On the Power Play. The area in which Ribeiro and David Rundblad made a notable contribution in the preseason was getting the puck in the offensive zone on the power play. If the Coyotes can spend time cycling on the fore-check instead of chasing down the puck with the man advantage, they are a lot more likely to score.
3. Win the Faceoffs. With the loss of Boyd Gordon and the underwhelming numbers of the aforementioned Ribeiro, the ability of the Coyotes to win draws is a major concern. Players like Martin Hanzal and Antoine Vermette will be critical in the dot, especially if the Coyotes have a narrow lead towards the end of the game.
Players to Watch
Derek Stepan is everything the Coyotes want Mikkel Boedker to be. The 23-year-old led the Rangers in points last season, racking up 18 goals and 26 assists. Though he missed a significant amount of the preseason negotiating a contract, Stepan will be a major scoring threat for the Rangers this year.
Mike Ribeiro will be incredibly important to the Coyotes' success this season. After leading the league in power play assists last year, the new No. 1 center will have the task of helping players like Boedker, Shane Doan, and occasionally Radim Vrbata put the puck in the net. While his point production is undeniable, the team would also like to see improvement on the defensive end and in the faceoff circle.
There's very little that has to be said about Lundqvist, other than the Coyotes are probably thankful they only have to face him twice a year.
The Coyotes expect big things from Mike Smith after giving him a six year, $34 million dollar deal in June. After a tremendously successful 2012 season that saw the Coyotes advance to the Western Conference Final, Smith struggled in 2013. He went 15-12-5 with a .910 SV% and a 2.58 GAA, neither of which is good enough for a No. 1 goaltender. He also struggled with injury problems in the shortened season. Both will have to change to give the Coyotes a chance at the playoffs.
Phoenix's only true injury is Rostislav Klesla, who is out for an indefinite period of time after taking a very hard hit from Jordan Nolan of the Los Angeles Kings during the preseason. On a similar note, Paul Bissonnette will not be available while he sits out three games for leaving the bench in that same game.
The game starts at 7 P.M. Arizona time at Jobing.com Arena. As a reminder, Coyotes games are now being broadcast on the KTAR family of radio stations. Tonight's will be on 620 AM.