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Mike Smith’s injury a major early problem for young Coyotes

NEWARK, N.J. — No time is a good time to lose your starting goaltender, but a left-leg injury to Arizona starter Mike Smith could not have come at a worse time with the young Coyotes embarking on a six-game, Eastern Conference road trip.

While Montreal, Boston and to a lesser extent, Los Angeles and Pittsburgh have weathered injuries to their starting goaltenders; those are veteran laden teams that understand how to pick up the slack when a key player is out. The Coyotes needed every edge they could get on this trip and they are not getting it from backups Louis Domingue and Justin Peters through five games of a winless journey.

Domingue struggled in relief when Smith went down in the first game of the trip in Ottawa, and then struggled again in a 5-2 loss in Montreal. He was better against the New York Islanders and Rangers, but allowed soft third-period goals from defensemen Johnny Boychuk and Dan Girardi — both from the point — that proved the difference in 3-2 losses.

With Domingue stumbling, coach Dave Tippett turned to Peters on Tuesday in New Jersey and the Coyotes looked like they might at least get a point when Oliver Ekman-Larsson scored twice in the game’s final 13 minutes. But a controversial penalty on Connor Murphy and a soft goal off the stick of Travis Zajac and through Peters’ wickets helped New Jersey win 5-3 and dropped the Coyotes to 1-5 through six games, the worst six-game start in franchise history.

“That’s a stoppable puck — three games in a row,” Tippett said. “We have good runs in the game where we’re doing what we’re capable of doing and then we have times where we don’t execute very well and we don’t get the save we need.”

Before a relief appearance in Montreal, Peters hadn’t played in an NHL game since March 28, 2015 against Nashville. He understood how precious the moment was and he understood how big the fourth goal was.

“It’s a save I’ve got to come up with,” Peters said. “It was a crucial time in the game, obviously — penalty kill, last couple minutes of the game. Unfortunately, there’s such a fine line between winning and losing. I’ve got to make that save.”

The Coyotes were probably hoping Peters was never put in this situation. They wanted Domingue to shoulder the load and build on last year’s promising run, when he played 39 games, posting a .912 save percentage, a 2.75 goals against average and setting the franchise record for wins (15) by a rookie goaltender while going 7-0-3 in his first 10 starts and making 16 straight appearances.

Instead they are staring at the real possibility of an 0-6 road trip and a 1-6 start if they can’t get a win on Thursday in Philadelphia. That’s a hole that will take a long time for a young team to dig out of, and it’s fair to wonder what might have happened had Smith stayed healthy instead of suffering an injury that has him listed as week to week.

Smith has had his own struggles the last few years, but he is clearly the No. 1 goalie and might have made a difference of a few more points — points the Coyotes are sorely missing.

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