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Behind Enemy Lines: Arizona Coyotes in a familiar position

Hurricanes begin a home and home with the Coyotes at PNC Arena tonight.

NHL: Arizona Coyotes at Calgary Flames Sergei Belski-USA TODAY Sports

For the Arizona Coyotes, the 2016-17 season has been a building season. This was not unexpected, and the gruesome 22-34-7 record has only allowed the Coyotes to be ahead of the disastrous Colorado Avalanche in the NHL standings. The Coyotes had the trade deadline pass with relatively little happening. Their only significant move was to trade Martin Hanzal and Ryan White to the Minnesota Wild for younger assets. Therefore, the young team headed into Raleigh tonight has only gotten younger in the past few days.

Offensively, the young Coyotes have actually been led by one of their veterans. 35-year old (and former Hurricane, once upon a time) Radim Vrbata is the team leader in points with 47. He was rumored to possibly be on the move, along with long-time team captain Shane Doan, but neither veteran was shipped out. Vrbata has provided a whopping 32 assists this season, and has shown the ability to set up his young and talented teammates playing around him.

In terms of young talent, the two most remarkable players would certainly be defenseman Oliver Ekman-Larsson and 21-year old left-winger Max Domi. Ekman-Larsson is second on the team in points with 34, while Domi has tallied 27 points in his 40 games played. Among the biggest disappointments this season for Arizona would unquestionably be the drop off in season two from Anthony Duclair. The 21-year old Quebec native burst on the scene last season in Arizona with 20 goals and 44 points total, but has only managed 3 goals in 41 games played thus far in year two. As you would imagine, as a team the Coyotes struggle to find the net, as they are currently 26th in the league with 152 goals (yet even that is one ahead of our Carolina Hurricanes at 151).

Defensively, that is where tonight’s two opponents differ the most. While the Hurricanes are stridently middle-of-the-pack in goals allowed, the Coyotes have been positively abysmal by allowing 206 goals in 63 games. That total is good for 29th worst in the league. The Coyotes contribute to that by allowing an average of 33.7 shots per game.

An undermanned defensive core has led to this high number of shots being fired at goalie Mike Smith, who has started 42 of the teams 63 games thus far. While posting a respectable .913 save percentage, Smith has had to endure a constant barrage of shots all season. A big body in net, the best way to beat Smith is to force movement from the big man to expose shooting gaps. Puck movement will be crucial for the Canes’ if they are to have any success tonight. Shots should be available, but executing on opportunities and creating better looks instead of taking the first shot available are certain keys to success.

Getting out into the lead is always important, but when you are dealing with two teams which struggle to score, getting that quicker start means all that much more. In terms of matching up with the Coyotes, the Canes’ must make sure they can contend with the speed of Domi at all times. His burst creates space for himself and others in the offensive zone. Expect to see a lot of Faulk/Slavin against Domi tonight and on Sunday in Glendale.

Finally, although his career is without as much fanfare as many players from his generation, tonight is likely the last game in Raleigh for Shane Doan. It is rumored that he may retire following the season. Doan will retire with more than 400 goals scored and nearly 1000 total points in the NHL. Having spend all of his career with one organization - beginning in Winnipeg in 1995-96 and moving to Phoenix with the organization the following year - Doan has not received the same spotlight as other players of his caliber. Although this season has been a struggle for him and his team, a salute to the Coyotes captain for a wonderful career.

What to Watch For

  • The Coyotes are in the bottom five in the league in both Power Play efficiency and Penalty Kill efficiency. Taking advantage of special teams is a must all weekend.
  • Who carries the net for both teams? Will one goalie stand in for each side in both games of this back to back, as there is a day off in between?
  • Expect to see continued juggling of lines unless an offensive outburst comes for the Canes’. At this point, cycling through combinations likely makes sense as coach Bill Peters tries to find out who can truly play and consistently contribute at the NHL level.