After shaking off the December doldrums with a 4-2 defeat of the Minnesota Wild on New Year's Eve, the Phoenix Coyotes head to St. Louis hoping to ring in 2012 with another win. The refreshing addition of goaltender Curtis McElhinney, who turned in a stellar performance in his first career start with the Coyotes, bolstered a reeling group slogging through a four-game slump without starter Mike Smith. A rejuvenated Blues squad awaits them, and there's no doubt that the home team will be a desperate bunch, with two bitter defeats to the rival Red Wings bookending their own three-game losing streak. Each team has enjoyed two full days of rest in preparation for this game, so fans should expect a crisp and clean performance from both sides.
The dawn of a new year is a time of renewed opportunity for all of us and hockey teams are no exception. With the Coyotes and the Blues battling for a pair of the Western Conference's prized, top-eight playoff spots, pouncing on these two points could prove critical down the stretch. The puck drops tonight at 6:00pm local time and Fox Sports Net Arizona will carry all the action. Find your Five for Winning and Players to Watch after the jump...
Five for Winning:
Hit the Road Running: Having put the dreadful December schedule behind them, a stretch in which the Coyotes played just 6 of their 16 games at home, only enjoyed consecutive home games once, and never had a three-game homestand, the Desert Dogs hit the road again to begin the new year. Tonight's game in St. Louis begins a stretch of 6 roadies in the next 8 games for Phoenix, and it is imperative that the team get off on the right foot. Playing in front of hostile, hockey-hungry road crowds hasn't been a problem for Dave Tippett's bunch, and their 12-8-1 road record ranks among the NHL's best.
Bring Back the Big Mac Attack: Considering the fact that career backup goalie Jason LaBarbera has struggled yet again in an extended stretch as the starter, it stands to reason that the coaching staff will give Curtis McElhinney another look. Although he was called up from the minors after Mike Smith went down, McElhinney is no rookie and he has experience as a starting netminder for the Anaheim Ducks and Ottawa Senators to his credit this year. Momentum is a major factor in hockey, perhaps more than any other sport, so here's hoping McElhinney takes the ice tonight and rides the rush from a 28-save effort against the Wild. Then again, rumors that Smith may make his return tonight after an encouraging morning skate may make the McElhinney discussion a moot point.
Double Down on the Two-For-One Special: Among the interesting statistical anomalies to materialize during a long NHL season, a recent scoring habit exhibited by the Coyotes caught my eye. In each of the team's last three road contests, a Phoenix forward has tallied 2 goals. Raffi Torres punched in a pair on Dec. 26th against the Los Angeles Kings and Mikkel Boedker matched him in Colorado three days later. In the Coyotes' win over the Wild, Radim Vrbata added to his team-leading total with two more goals. On the road yet again, a fourth multi-goal game by a Coyote would contribute greatly to the cause and I'd like to nominate the Captain himself Shane Doan. After all, it was the Doaner who opened the season with his own two-goal road game against San Jose.
The House that Blue Down: The St. Louis Blues have defended home ice at Scottrade Center admirably, and their 14-3-2 record puts them among the game's elite in that respect. One of the driving engines of the Blues' strong play at home is goalie Brian Elliott, who boasts an impressive 8-1-0 record and 1.33 goals against average in St. Louis. In the spirit of New Year's resolutions and new beginnings, the Coyotes should ignore the Blues' home mystique and play the grinding road game that has served them well for three seasons running.
Hitchcock is for The Birds : The Blues have certainly responded under the tutelage of veteran head coach Ken Hitchcock. Since assuming the mantle on Nov. 6th, Hitchcock has revamped St. Louis' playing style and instilled his proven philosophy of winning hockey. The Blues are 15-5-5 under the Cup-winning coach and it was Hitchcock's deft manipulation of his bench, with expertly deployed line changes that caught the Coyotes flatfooted, which propelled the Blues to a 3-2 victory in Phoenix just over a week ago. Dave Tippett and his staff must think on their feet and respond to Hitchcock's tinkering from the bench to put their team in the best position to win.
Players to Watch:
#3 / Defenseman / Phoenix Coyotes
Sep 09, 1986
|2011 - Keith Yandle||5||18||23||0||26|
The classic offensive-minded defenseman, Keith Yandle has hit a rough patch of late, registering 0 goals and 1 assist in his last four games. However, Yandle's last goal came against this Blues squad and there's no reason why he can't light the lamp again tonight in St. Louis. And a few well placed passes to pad his assist total couldn't hurt either.
#44 / Center / St. Louis Blues
Oct 11, 1974
|2011 - Jason Arnott||8||12||20||11||18|
The veteran Arnott is approaching 40 years of age but his scoring has not slowed a bit. With 9 points in his last 11 games, including the eventual game-winning goal against Phoenix in the team's previous tilt, Arnott is holding the hot stick for the Blues. Shutting him out of the box score would be a great start to the Coyotes' planned postseason surge.
Dive into the Gameday thread at the normal time to follow tonight's action in the company of fellow Coyotes fanatics.