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The Five for Howling Roundtable: Looking in Both Directions

Greeting Phoenix Coyotes Fans.  Welcome to another edition of the Five for Howling Roundtable.  In this week's edition, we look ahead to the playoffs and start taking a look back at the regular season.  We once again have a special guest joining us this week.  This week's guest is Sarah McLellan, sports reporter for the Arizona Republic.  In addition to reading her articles in the paper, you can also follow her on Twitter.   On to questions...

As the playoffs close in, what teams have surprised you by playing better than you expected them to this season?  What team that has been the most disappointing this season? 

Sarah:  In the Western Conference, Anaheim has remained in the playoff hunt with solid play in the final few months of the season. The Ducks are a team that I didn't necessarily count on as keeping pace with the juggernauts of the West, so they've exceeded my expectations. This is a team that is blossoming under a young core led by Corey Perry (potential Hart Trophy candidate?) with a strong veteran presence (Teemu Selanne). What's even more remarkable is the Ducks are winning games in March without Jonas Hiller. This is a team that is willing to do whatever it can to win.

Calgary has been the disappointing team for me in the West. On paper, this is a playoff team. How stars like Jarome Iginla and Miikka Kiprusoff will likely be left out of the playoffs is a testament to the parity in the game but also a reflection of Calgary's poor start to the season. The Flames were the hottest team in the league after the Christmas break, but this wasn't a team that could deliver long-term success. Its personnel and budget hint otherwise.

In the Eastern Conference, the Tampa Bay Lightning have to be the sweetheart team. Guy Boucher will definitely get Jack Adams Award consideration, and rightfully so. This is a team, with Steve Yzerman at the helm, that the hockey world predicted would have a better showing, but advancing to the playoffs for the first time in four seasons is a huge jump. It's a consistent group, and the mix of bright youngsters like Steven Stamkos and capable veterans like Vincent Lecavalier and Martin St. Louis works very well. As far as disappointing team in the East, I would say New Jersey. How this team spiraled out of playoff contention so early in the season is surprising considering the franchise's track record. This will be the first time the Devils aren't in the playoffs since 1996. With the names on their roster, that's unfortunate. But it just goes to show-talent can only get you so far in today's NHL.

Ben:  I wouldn't pick one team but one whole division, the Pacific. If anyone would have told me in October, that all five teams would be in the hunt in April, I would have asked them to politely return to the asylum. The most disappointing team I would have to say is the Colorado Avalanche, after starting off strong, the wheels have fallen off the bus.

Carl:  In the West, I'm similar to Ben from the standpoint that the way that the Pacific has turned out has been surprising.  The Ducks and Stars have both been better than I expected.  The kings have been slightly worse than I anticipated. In the East, the only real surprise for me has been the play of Atlanta and Buffalo.  I expected the two teams to be in opposite positions right now.

Jordan:  I'd say I'm most surprised by Dallas. Despite their recent skid, they've been a very competitive team all season and it just wasn't clear that they'd break out like this after their performance last year. Also, although I knew they were good, Vancouver has been better than I expected. On the downside, New Jersey, St. Louis and Colorado all were far below where I expected them to be at the beginning of this year.

Paul:  In the West - Vancouver, even though they play in a weaker division, have surprised me this year.  I didn't expect them to dominate as they have.  I expected more from St. Louis.  In the East - Tampa Bay.  Since the new owner cleaned house, they are now contending.  Guy Boucher has them playing very well.  New Jersey is the team that just has tanked.  You can't buy chemistry.

Travis:  I'm not sure there really are any surprise great teams for me this year. I don't think any of the point totals are something you look at and go Whoa, they really overachieved. On the other hand, Colorado has to be the biggest disappointment after they made the playoffs last year and then just absolutely tanked this year. St. Louis I had high hopes for as well and they stunk too.

How important is it that the Coyotes win the Pacific Division?

Sarah:  Winning the Pacific Division would be a great accomplishment. It'd be the first for the organization and a real turning point for the franchise. But it's not a necessity. Contending for the crown with the San Jose Sharks until the last game guarantees a playoff spot, and home-ice advantage, and that's really all the Coyotes want. Sure, players, coaches and management would love to hang a banner from the rafters. But simply just making the playoffs and solidifying home ice has to be of top priority, especially with key players injured.

Ben:  Sure, Winning the division assures us home ice, but more importantly it gives the team a sense of accomplishment, something that can last through the playoff push.

Carl:   Not important unless you are a fan of large banners.

Jordan:  I have a hard time getting too worked up about it. It would be a nice thing to do, for sure - hanging that banner in the rafters would be pretty awesome. That being said, so long as the Coyotes make the playoffs, I'm not even sure having home ice advantage is that big a deal considering their road performance all year.

Paul:  If the Coyotes are able to win the division, that means they are a lock for the playoffs and home ice advantage at the 3rd seed (maybe 2nd?).  If they are not able to win the division, there will be a jockeying for seeding and they could run into some unfavorable matchups.  To me, winning the division is something that this team should truly play for as aggressively as they can; it will be a big advantage.

Travis:  To the team? I have no idea. It's really not critical so long as the team is in with how they play on the road. To me it's important just to show to everyone else that the team won it. If not for a ton of injuries I think the Coyotes would have made it, but it's a long shot now.

Can the Coyotes be successful in the playoffs with their given the current state of their special teams play?  Do changes need to be made to either schemes or personnel, if so, what are they?

Sarah:  Special teams have been a concern as of late for the Coyotes but fact is, the team is still finding a way to win. Performance on the penalty kill and power play is usually cyclical; once the unit finds a recipe for success, it sticks with it and is superb for a series of games. I don't think it's so much as a personnel issue for the power play as much as a manner of style. Sometimes the second unit has better chances than the first. I think the key is simplifying the attack. Putting pucks on net has to be the objective. Weird deflections and rebounds can quickly lead to goals. As far as the penalty kill, it's been struggling without Martin Hanzal and probably will continue to if Vernon Fiddler and Lauri Korpikoski are out for an extended period of time. This is an area of the game that does rely on personnel. These players are able to box out the opponent, get their sticks in shooting lanes and block shots. That's a tough job to fill, but those little things need to be done to prevent goals.

Ben:  Being 22nd and 26th on the Power play and Penalty kill (respectively) is not going to do it in the playoffs. We've seen recent flashes of brilliance on the PP and PK (See the recent swing through Western Canada), only to follow it up with a 0% PK against Chicago.  The one scheme I will never like is the dump in on the PP. Why not take that shot from the blue line, causing the goalie to make a save. Worst case, is the puck is cleared out. Better case is the puck is caught and play is stopped or the puck is deflected to the boards, the same place it would be on a dump-in. Best case the goalie misplays it and leaves a rebound in the slot generating a nice scoring opportunity.

Carl:   Normally I'd say no way and I still want to say this.  However, their even strength play has been so good that it has balanced things out.  Against teams without great power plays like Nashville and L.A. they might just be able to get away with poor special teams play.  However, playing poorly, especially on the PK against the Canucks, Wings, or Sharks is a recipe for disaster. 

The penalty kill has turned into a reactive mess many nights this season.  Too many of the penalty kill goals allowed seem to be from in the slot or the crease.  I can live to with deflections from the point, but allowing guys to roam free in close is a big problem.  Too often guys are out of position chasing the puck.  The penalty kill, like all of defensive hockey, is about positioning and desire.  Too often both things have been lacking this season when the Yotes have been down a man.

The Coyotes biggest issue on the PP seems to be the beginning part of the PP.  They struggle at times to gain the zone and/or set up quickly.  This allows the opponent's penalty killers to be aggressive.  When the power play does set up and guys are passing the puck quickly they get opportunities.  The one area I have little complaint about the PP is around the net.  They normally do a good job of having someone in front to screen the goalie and guys crash the net for rebounds.  Personnel wise I believe Coach Tippett has his best guys out on the ice.  He just doesn't have a huge amount of offensive skill to work with.

Jordan:  Certainly it will be a bigger struggle than it needs to be if the Coyotes are unable to improve their special teams, particularly the penalty kill. I'm not an expert at coaching to recommend changes in the scheme, per se, although I do note that the Coyotes tend to struggle more against PK teams that pressure the puck holder and force quick decisions while clogging shooting lanes from the point. No offense to the players on the PP unit, but they tend to look a bit like a deer in headlights when this pressure occurs. Certainly the PP looks better when Whitney is on the ice, and I like Shane Doan playing down low with Hanzal or Pyatt screening the goalie. I also generally prefer having 2 d-men at the point. For the PK, I think they just need to get healthy. It's going to be hard killing penalties if Fiddler, Korpikoski, Hanzal and Jovo are all hurt.

Paul:  I don't know what the brain lock is for the specialty teams lately.  Ray Whitney still does not look 100% to me and I think that has truly been the factor.  When the Tampa Bay Lightning ran to the cup in 2003-04, their power play was really anemic, but they still got the job done 5-on-5.  They had stellar goaltending in Nikolai Khabibulin and a backup in John Grahame that was superb when he needed to be.  The Coyotes are in the same boat, but the game is different now than in 2003-04 and I think the specialty teams could be a big factor, especially given the amount of one goal games the Coyotes find themselves in.

Travis:   Sad to say I think what you see is about as good as our special teams gets right now. Especially, with all of our PK guys hurt. One thing the Power play is is streaky though as they suddenly find the light switch for a few games and go PP goal scoring crazy. So long as they find that around, oh April 12th or so...

The Coyotes have scored by committee and relied on their depth this season. If several of the currently injured players are unable to participate in the playoffs, do you believe the team can make a postseason run?

Sarah:  The Coyotes' depth and balanced offense are two of the reasons why they should make the playoffs. If that's lost for the first round of the playoffs, I can't see them lasting longer than one round. The games get tougher in the postseason and if the roster that we're seeing now is the one fielded by coach Dave Tippett in the playoffs, the top three lines will be insanely tired having to go against a team like Los Angeles or Chicago that will roll four lines. Furthermore, the players that are out right now are match-up forwards; part of their job is to shut down the opposition's best. If Hanzal and Fiddler aren't tracking the other team's first and second lines, I don't see how this team can persevere past the first round.

Ben:   I believe that with the current roster we can be competitive, but not necessarily successful. With Fiddler and Hanzal out, were not seeing that screen in front of the net that has allowed the shots from the outside to be as effective as they have been in the past.

Carl:   Depends on which players it is.  They have and can continue to succeed without Jovo.  They might miss his physical presence, but besides that there isn't much to miss, especially his penchant for taking penalties.  On the other hand, if they are missing two of their top three centers then a likely quick exit looms.  Korpikoski is a bit of a wild card and one I'd assume have in the deck.  He brings speed and he's been a great goal scorer all season.  The PK has been bad enough with him.  I'm frightened to see what it would be without him for an extended period of time.

Jordan:  Depending on the player, I don't think it will make a big difference considering the depth the Coyotes have been able to rely upon. However, the Coyotes definitely need to see the M*A*S*H unit as Coach Tippett calls it shrink a bit before the postseason. It's gotten to the point of absurdity recently and it will really hurt the team as missing Shane Doan and Scottie Upshall certainly hurt last year against Detroit.

Paul:  Wow, good question.  The depth is the weakest part of this team right now with many of the key players out.  Hopefully, some of these guys can come back, but if any other committee members get hurt then they will have to play some gritty hockey because the odds will be stacked against them.  The younger players will just have to step up like Brett Maclean and Kyle Turris along with the secondary players like Lee Stempniak and Andrew Ebbett.  If these guys can get to lighting the lamp and the defensemen contribute in the scoring, and they don't get any more injuries during the playoff run, they have a chance to go deep.  It will be a challenge though.

Travis:  It all depends on who is out. If it's just Jovo then yes. If it's Jovo and Martin Hanzal maybe/maybe not, if Fiddler and Korpikoski are out as well for any extended period of time on top of that then no, first round exit here we come. Those are key guys and not only that, but in Jovo and Fiddler key playoff guys in that they can really elevate their games and the physical play come April/May and we're going to need that.