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Arizona Coyotes’ Penalty Kill is Unsung Hero of Season’s First Month

(Fred Kfoury III/Icon Sportswire)

The rookies get the headlines, and they probably should. Anthony Duclair delivered a hat trick in just his 21st NHL contest — and just his third as a member of the Arizona Coyotes. Jordan Martinook is a quick, hard-working winger who has evolved his game so much over the last year that he went from up-and-comer to borderline lock to make the roster midway through training camp. And Klas Dahbleck seems poised to become a fixture among the top four defensemen for a long time, assuming he stays on his current trajectory.

Oh yeah, and there’s also Max Domi. All he’s doing is leading all rookies not named Connor McDavid in points (11 in 11 games), and he’s doing it in style. Each of his five goals so far have been highlight worthy, drawing the attention of everyone from Jaromir Jagr to Sports Illustrated to Teemu Selanne to the vast majority of hockey fans across the continent. And many of his six assists have been electrifying too. Every time he touches the puck, he’s a very real threat to make something memorable happen.

So yes, it makes sense that the rookies are what everyone’s talking about. But they’re not the only reason Arizona is off to a better start than anticipated.

One of the biggest assets to the Coyotes this season is their penalty kill. Through 11 games, the Coyotes rank 13th in the NHL with an 82.9 percent kill rate. In 2014-15, they ranked 29th in the NHL, at 76.7 percent. And 2013-14 wasn’t much better, at 79 percent (26th overall).

Granted, it’s based on a relatively small sample size, but that’s still a notable improvement — especially considering the fact that four of the seven goals they’ve surrendered have come against Boston’s top-ranked power play (32.1 percent). In two games against the Bruins, Arizona is 6-for-10 when down a man. Against everyone else, Dave Tippett’s squad is 28-for-31. That second number is quite efficient.

Getting the job done on special teams is important to every club, but it’s especially valuable to a team like the Coyotes, who are constructed to (ideally) grind out wins in lower-scoring games as they work in a lot of relatively inexperienced players. They’re building with a long-term goal in mind, so it’s vital to develop the young guys at a reasonable pace. But that doesn’t mean they have to mortgage the present either. And that starts with the simple act of keeping the puck out of their own net.

That mindset is generally a staple of Tippett’s coaching style anyway, but it might be even more imperative than usual right now. This year’s group has shown a better ability to produce goals than in years past, with many of the new guys leading the charge. Prior to being shut out by Tuukka Rask at the end of a three-games-in-four-nights stretch to close out a lengthy, five-game road trip, they were averaging 3.00 goals per contest. But there is bound to be some fluctuation, with so many players in their early 20s being asked to contribute up front. So again, keeping the other team from scoring is the first step to building a sustainable winning formula.

Through 11 games, Arizona is 5-5-1. So it’s not like they’re planning the Stanley Cup parade through the streets of Phoenix just yet. But it’s the way this group has been winning that’s most encouraging. Of their first 11 games, seven were on the road, with three back-to-backs mixed in. And the quality of competition they’ve faced is undeniable. Coming out of that .500 while putting a bunch of new pieces together on the fly isn’t easy.

The big picture for the Coyotes is a good one — and the present is becoming pretty compelling as well. If they keep moving along at this rate, the Coyotes will equal last season’s win total just after the midway point of the season. And the revamped penalty kill is a major reason why.

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