For all the headlines the franchise had made off the ice, it’s the Phoenix Coyotes on ice product that should be making the news.
Led by a core of young, talented hard working players, and solid goaltending by Ilya Bryzgalov, the Coyotes have been one of the biggest surprises in the NHL this season, and continued their winning ways tonight defeating the Leafs 6-3 in Toronto, denying the Leafs of their fifth straight win on home ice.
Petr Prucha score twice for the Coyotes, while Vernon Fiddler, Paul Bissonnette, Scottie Upshall and Radim Vrbata all tallied singles for Phoenix. Â Jamal Mayers, Phil Kessel, and Alexei Ponikarovsky replied for Toronto.
–I thought the early forecheck and overall commitment to the defensive game tonight started out well, but faded in the second period. Â For a team that has consistently fell behind, it was refreshing to see them come out of the gate flying, getting scoring chances, and taking the body. Â They gave up the first goal again, but they didn’t look like they were sleepwalking through the first period either.
–Back to the defensive commitment by everyone on the team, I thought tonight, in the first period and most of the third, was a perfect example of the type of compete level Ron Wilson wants to see from his club. Â Alexei Ponikarovsky did a great job scrambling to get back and break up a Coyotes scoring chance early in the game.
–This is certainly a team with speed to burn, and tonight some of their best chances were constructed when players were in solid position, and kept their feet moving. Â Despite not scoring the goal, Lee Stempniak’s short handed opportunity was the perfect example of a player knowing where to be on the ice, and utilizing his speed to create chances.
–After a first period in which the Leafs looked okay, they seemed to have their systems ripped apart by the Coyotes. Â The Maple Leafs were lost in their own zone tonight, and they couldn’t handle the transition game, and it spelled their downfall. Â Simple things usually create solid results in your own zone, and the Leaf strayed away from the simple things tonight, and let the Coyotes work their game with a lot of flow. Â If you look at the shot charts from tonight, it’s clear to see the Coyotes game plan (and you’ll find it’s the game plan of most NHL teams) is to force opponents to shoot from the outside, to box them out. Â it was a simple case of the have and the have nots in the game tonight, as the Coyotes did the better job of forcing the Leafs to the outside and limiting their chances down the middle, which was key in their victory.
–In talking about how the Coyotes were able to break down the Leafs systems, the first goal of the game by Petr Prucha was a perfect example. Â The coverage in the defensive zone down low was too loose, and it appeared that the defenseman forgot their roles and lost where each other was on the ice, which gave Prucha the free room to move. Â as Ian White said, a team’s power play usually has it’s five best players on the ice, and when you lose your assignment and make those mistakes, you’re more than likely to get burned. Â In terms of the penalty kill this year, gap control has been a big problem. Â I think Ron Wilson’s systems can be complicated to learn. Â Once you learn them, the benefits are quite large, but in the interim, I think they are difficult systems to master, and what you see on the ice is perhaps players overthinking it, and the results are the lack of gap control which allows the opposing team to get their quality chances.
–We spoke of this in our last game recap, but blocked shots matter. Â Nearing the end of the first period, the Coyotes had 12 blocked shots, while the Leafs failed to register a single block. Â The Coyotes also forced the Leafs to miss the net nine times, no doubt a direct result of players giving up their bodies and getting themselves into the shooting lanes. Â I again reiterate how easy it is for me t sit in an armchair and talk about how important it is to block shots. Â I understand how much it hurts. Â I understand the danger involved, but teams that are committed to blocking shots on a regular basis are far more successful than those who aren’t willing to do so.
–After a slow start, Francois Beauchemin has really turned up his game, and is playing a far more responsible game in his own end, all the while using his speed and hockey intelligence to create plays and generate chances, as he did on the Leafs first goal off the hands of Jamal Mayers. Â While Mayers used good speed and a hard, accurate wrist shot to beat Ilyz Bryzgalov, it was a perfect stretch pass from Beauchemin that allowed Mayers to dissect the Phoenix defense.
–Without going any further, I need to ask you guys a quick question. Â Did anyone else see Colton Orr‘s eye?!?! Â My goodness. Â That is a shiner and then some. Â It’s clear to see why Orr was unable to return to Monday’s game against Ottawa. Â That made me sore looking at it. Â For his part, Orr has done a very good job with the Leafs this year. Â Not only is he one of the league’s top fighters, but he is also not a liability while on the ice, and can use his bigger frame to create offense and cycle the puck down low.
– The Leafs made a game of this one tonight in the third period, and although he had a bit of rough night in net (though it certainly wasn’t all his fault) something needs to be said about the huge save Vesa Toskala made in the third period when the score was (I believe) 2-1. Â It was saves like that were missing from the team in the early going while Vesa struggled and Gustavsson was getting his feet wet.
–You all know the hockey cliches. Â When you’re playing well, the bounces keep going your way, and when you’re struggling a little bit, the bounces seem to go against you. Â That seemed to be the way they were going tonight as the Leafs gave up a few goals they’d like a mulligan for. Â On the second Prucha goal, it was a case of a good save by Toskala, but he was unable to hang onto it, and then the Leafs were beat one-on-three as Prucha wrestled it out and scored. Â The same can be said of Scottie Upshall’s goal which went directly off of Ian White’s foot.
–The late goal by Phil Kessel certainly seemed to provide a little energy for his teammates that they carried over into the third, and it also allowed us to take a look at one of the better releases in the National Hockey League. Â Kessel’s bread and butter is the release, and it’s a beauty to watch. Â He does such a great job of disguising it and snapping it on goal with such quickness and accuracy. Â Kessel now has 13 goals on this season, which are good numbers, especially for a player who had the first month or so of his season cut due to his recovery from off season shoulder surgery.
–The Leafs third goal scored by Alexei Ponikarovsky was a perfect disruption of the Coyotes system, and was exactly what the doctor ordered in terms of the Leafs getting a quality scoring chance and getting a little more confidence, making the game a close one in the final period. Â The Leafs had real good, quick, puck movement in the neutral zone, and right, left, right with their passing while entering the zone, which disrupted the flow of the Coyotes defenseman and skaters getting back into the zone, which gave Ponikarovsky a good scoring chance which he capitalized on.
–Give the Leafs all the credit for once again not folding their tent and going home when things looked bleak heading into the third period. Â They were, for the most part, the better team in the third period, and really forced the play, getting their share of chances in the third before the Coyotes iced the game for good with an empty netter late in the third. Â Tonight was a difficult night for the Leafs, as they had trouble transitioning with the Coyotes. Â Things won’t get any easier to close out the week as they have two big division games against Buffalo Friday, and Boston Saturday.