In the City of Angels, a day of reckoning
LOS ANGELES -- If someone was to write a book about the Phoenix Coyotes' season -- the king of horror, Stephen King, immediately comes to mind -- it might as well be called "When Bad Things Happen To Bad Teams."
On a Saturday afternoon, when the Coyotes battled back from a 3-0 deficit to tie the L.A. Kings, Phoenix simply could not help itself, giving up a Kings power-play goal, the third of the game, midway through the third period to drop a heartbreaking 5-3 decision.
Last season, not many could have predicted that Carolina and Edmonton would have faced off in the Stanley Cup finals. So, it got us to thinking -- who is this season's surprise story? Before the start of the season, ESPN.com picked the Phoenix Coyotes. It hasn't quite worked out the way we or the Coyotes thought, but Scott Burnside continues to chronicle the team's travels throughout the season. In Part II, he tries to find out what went wrong.
PART II -- AT THE QUARTER POLE
PART I -- THE PREDICTIONS
So much for that two-game winning streak.
So much for the modicum of confidence.
"I feel bad for my guys in there because I thought they gave a real honest effort tonight" coach Wayne Gretzky said afterward. "I don't know what else to say other than I feel bad for the group of guys in there because I think they deserved better than everything that happened out there tonight."
The view from the outside might be that the Coyotes played poorly against a mediocre foe and lost. Frankly, that would be easier to stomach than the reality.
Instead, the Coyotes dominated much of the five-on-five play. They employed a vigorous forecheck, something Gretzky has been stressing in recent days, and created scoring chances. They didn't allow many odd-man rushes.
But they are a team that cannot seem to resist pushing that self-destruct button.
Good teams would have stolen at least a point from the Kings after tying the game early in the third period (a crazy goal by Oleg Saprykin that appeared to have been scored using a lob wedge). Good teams would have sensed an emotionally fragile opponent and applied that extra pressure. When the Coyotes tied the game at 3-3, it marked the second straight game the Kings had blown a big lead (they lost 4-3 to Philadelphia earlier in the week after leading 3-1).
"The penalty kill wasn't great, but you know the first goal should have been saved. Your best penalty killer has got to be the goalie. It just set our guys on our heels," Gretzky said in perhaps his most frank, negative assessment of a player since he took over as head coach before last season.
"I don't know what to say. He's not getting the job done," Gretzky said of LeNeveu. "It's as simple as that. This game is dictated by wins and losses, and I know he's a better goalie than he's showed. He just hasn't gotten it done, it's as simple as that."
If there is a sequence of action that illustrates the season-long trials and tribulations of the Phoenix Coyotes, it is this one.
Trailing 2-0 midway through the second period, the Coyotes were on the power play. A shot squeezed past Kings netminder Dan Cloutier, but before the puck could skitter across the goal line, Kings captain Mattias Norstrom swept the puck clear. As the play carried on, Phoenix defenseman Zbynek Michalek failed to coral a bouncing puck at the point, allowing Alexander Frolov to skate free down the left side and beat LeNeveu with a weak backhand to make it 3-0.
It seems almost certain LeNeveu, once considered the goalie of the future for the Coyotes, has played his last game in the desert as GM Mike Barnett is now beating the bushes for a backup to 39-year-old Joseph.
Gretzky explained his rationale for starting LeNeveu, citing Joseph's starts on Tuesday and Thursday coupled with an afternoon game Saturday followed by a Sunday night game in Anaheim.
"As it turned out, [Joseph] had to play anyways, so probably a silly move on my part. I probably should have started him," Gretzky said ruefully the next day.
This appeared to be a perfect place for the Coyotes to establish a season-best, three-game winning streak and double their road victory output to two.
The Kings boasted a nearly identical record to the Coyotes. And if the Coyotes harbored any thoughts of making strides through the conference standings, the Kings were one of six teams they would have to pass en route to a playoff berth.
Initial defensive woes, including spotty goaltending from Joseph in the opening games of the season, have largely been replaced.
"We've really changed our neutral zone play the last four or five games," assistant coach Ulf Samuelsson said. "Teams won't be able to waltz through us like they did the first seven or eight games."
And Joseph has been nothing short of sensational in recent games.
Not only did he stop 21 of 22 shots he faced in relief on Saturday, he was also 2-2 with a 2.00 goals-against average and .931 save percentage in his previous four starts. But with that hole plugged, the hole on special teams opens up like a geyser. On Saturday, the Coyotes gave up three power-play goals and a shorthanded marker.
What makes this loss more difficult to swallow is that the Kings are a team in a clearly defined rebuilding mode. They have dealt veteran players Eric Belanger and Pavol Demitra, as well as emerging defenseman Tim Gleason, to stockpile youth in the form of Jack Johnson and Patrick O'Sullivan. Along with surprising rookie Anze Kopitar, the Kings' future might be much closer than people imagine.
The Coyotes? This season was to be their future. They brought in veterans with miles of experience to give them a physical edge and to push them to the playoffs.
Before Saturday's game, one of those players, Ed Jovanovski, was answering questions about a rumor that he was about to be dealt to San Jose for netminder Evgeni Nabokov. Barnett vigorously denied there'd been any contact. But unless the team starts to win regularly, those rumors will dog the team until the trade deadline in late February. On Saturday, for instance, Calgary GM Darryl Sutter was on hand as part of a tour through California. Come March, Sutter will be a buyer, looking for a center and perhaps another skilled forward to help his Flames in their Cup pursuit, looking to pick over the carcass of teams like the Coyotes.
Not far from where Jovanovski was chatting with reporters, two other key parts of the Coyotes veteran movement, Owen Nolan and Jeremy Roenick, tossed a football before the game. They were to be the team's twin reclamation projects. Yet, in the absence of Mike Comrie, Shane Doan and Steven Reinprecht, they have not contributed in a meaningful fashion.
Roenick has played better than people might imagine, killing penalties and the like. But on this day, a couple of scoring opportunities went for not and he was laid out by a borderline knee-on-knee hit by Jeff Cowan, much to the delight of the small Staples Center crowd, which booed Roenick every time he touched the puck.
At one point, a fan yelled out what appeared to be, "He eats children."
After the game, Roenick was asked about the booing and his recent comment to a Canadian television network that he came into camp a year ago deliberately out of shape to spite the NHL for the lockout. Given the state of his current team, all of the bluster about last season seems sadly misplaced.
Scott Burnside is the NHL writer for ESPN.com.
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