Game 20 Preview: Tampa Bay Lightning @ Phoenix Coyotes

The Tampa Bay Lightning (14-5-0, 28 PTS), now at the season’s quarter pole well ahead still atop the Eastern Conference and very much ahead of widespread expectations, begin a grueling, four-game road swing through the Pacific division with a match against the Phoenix Coyotes (13-4-3, 29 PTS) tonight. The Bolts, who have won both games since losing Steven Stamkos to injury and without the services of Keith Aulie and Sami Salo, thumped a visiting a similarly depleted (and flu ravaged) Ducks squad the other night while the Coyotes enter tonight’s contest having come up just short against the Blackhawks on Thursday, defeated in the skills competition after an entertaining, back-and-forth tilt.

Tampa Bay won its last trek to Phoenix — a mid-season jaunt during the 2012-2012 season — by withstanding a spirited third-period comeback effort. That victory marked the Lightning’s tenth in the last twelve meetings between the two clubs. In recent times, though, it’s the Coyotes that has been far more consistent on the ice. The Desert Dogs found themselves on the outside looking in at the conclusion of the lockout-abbreviated season earlier this year but made the playoffs each of the three previous, a remarkable feat when you consider the preceding years of futility and the well-documented off-ice uncertainty the club endured as a ward of the league, a situation that is thankfully resolved (for now).

There to steer the ship through such stormy seas was the tandem of general manger Don Maloney and head coach Dave Tippett, who’ve had to do more with less all along the way. Tippett, in particular, is a fascinating bench boss, as pragmatic as he is progressive in his methodology, especially when it comes to his interest and application of analytics. Tippett’s clubs might be very meat-and-potatoes, coached to subsist on a steady diet of defensive orientation, but he utilizes a player-efficiency rating system which breaks down individual’s performance in relation to a number of tracked, in-game events and he even eschews some conventional thinking about the game:

“Sometimes, when I watch games at home (as a fan), I’ll chuckle at some of the things being said about the players,” he said…”I’ll give you an example,” he said. “We had a player that was supposed to be a great, shut-down defenseman. He was supposedly the be-all, end-all of defensemen. But when you did a 10-game analysis of him, you found out he was defending all the time because he can’t move the puck. “Then we had another guy, who supposedly couldn’t defend a lick. Well, he was defending only 20 percent of the time because he’s making good plays out of our end. He may not be the strongest defender, but he’s only doing it 20 percent of the time. So the equation works out better the other way. I ended up trading the other defenseman.”

Up front, there is little in the way of dynamism for Tippett but it’s a competent forward grouping on the balance. Martin Hanzal, Mikkel Boedker and 37-year old Shane Doan, the franchise’s longtime cornerstone, are buoyed by the presence of Mike Ribeiro, a savvy free-agent addition by GM Don Maloney in the off-season, Radim Vrbata, who has provided a reliable scoring presence since returning from his brief stint with the Lightning, and Antoine Vermette. Beyond that there’s a number of rank-and-file role players fleshing out the lines. Defenseman Keith Yandle led the team in point production last season and both he and fellow rearguard Oliver Ekman-Larsson are currently leading the race for that point of distinction this season. The last Coyotes forward to finish with the highest point total on the team? Ray Whitney (in 2011-2012).

It’s not a perfect translation but Ekman-Larsson and Yandle are to the Coyotes what, respectively, Victor Hedman and Matt Carle are to the Lightning. Supporting these minute-eaters is a deep cast of homegrown and supplemented talent that makes for Phoenix’s greatest area of strength. Rostislav Klesla, Zbynek Michalek and Derek Morris, when healthy, form a veteran supporting cast bolstered by the emergence of Michael Stone and continued progression of David Rundblad. The unit is so deep that 2010 1st-rounder Brandon Gormley has yet to sniff NHL ice.

In net, the Coyotes have a now well-seasoned netminder, former Bolt Mike Smith, to carry the load. After a tumultuous and injury-plagued tenure with the Lightning, Smith has revitalized his career since being reunited with Tippett, whom he previously played for in Dallas. It’s not really that surprising when you consider that the Flyers infamously gave Ilya Bryzgalov a since-amnestied big-bucks contract because of the career years he had with Phoenix. If the Predators are a goalie factory, Dave Tippett’s Coyotes are goalie rehab.

If the Lightning can secure a point, or both, tonight, it will make for either the 15th of 16th earned during this second 10-game leg of the season. The wins have certainly come at an impressive pace which, prorated over the remainder of the schedule, would lead to a 121-point finish. Of course, unless this bunch is destined to put up the best regular season record, sans Stamkos, since the Capitals’ 121-point campaign in 2009-2010, there’s going to be some cooling off ahead. With a string of pit stops against Western Conference heavyweights still to go, it wouldn’t be surprising if that process began sooner than later but, ideally, the leveling off will be graduated.


Season Series

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Special Teams

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Team stats cited from Extra Skater.

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