GLENDALE, Ariz. — Five months ago, Rick Tocchet and Phil Housley were part of organizations competing to lift the Stanley Cup.
Now, following a change of city and scenery for both former NHL players, their current goals and expectations are a bit more modest. Namely, to avoid coaching the worst teams in their respective conferences.
It’s a big turnaround from last season. Tocchet was an assistant coach for the Pittsburgh Penguins team that defeated the Nashville Predators, with Housley on their staff, to win a second straight Stanley Cup.
Now, Tocchet and Housley are head coaches, and the wins and successes are fewer than they were during the 2016-17 season.
Housley’s Buffalo Sabres (3-7-1) travel to the desert Thursday night to play Tocchet’s Arizona Coyotes (1-11-1), who earlier this week ended their NHL record-tying 11-game losing streak to start the season. But the Coyotes still haven’t won at Gila River Arena, where they are 0-5-1.
The Sabres also took a while to win, starting the season 0-4-1, but they’ve since gone 3-3-1 — although they haven’t played since losing to the San Jose Sharks 3-2 on Saturday. Housley likes the progress his team is making, but he’s not ready to say it has turned its season the right way.
“We can’t look ahead. … We have to take little steps,” Housley said after practice Wednesday. “First of all, we’ve got to win a game (Thursday). That’s the first and foremost thing, beating an Arizona team that’s pretty desperate.”
Tocchet can only hope that the last NHL team without a home victory is desperate.
After finally winning Monday night in Philadelphia, where the Coyotes blew a 3-0 lead but managed to rally and win 4-3 in overtime, Tocchet said his team had “too many passengers” — an expression he’s used often this season — during a 5-3 loss in Detroit on Tuesday night.
With not much time to recover from a 1-4 Eastern road swing, Tocchet indeed hopes there’s some desperation shown by a team that isn’t getting reliable scoring or goaltending, or the kind of consistency in both ends that’s needed to win in the NHL.
“You have to play the full 60 minutes,” Tocchet said after his team fell behind 2-0 in the first period during the loss in Detroit. “The problem with us is if we make a mistake, it’s egregious, and it’s in our net. It’s not a small mistake, it’s a big mistake, and we’ve got to wipe those away.”
The Coyotes would like to wipe away some of their sub-par goaltending. They’ve already used four goaltenders, mostly because projected starter Antti Raanta has played only one full game because of multiple lower-body injuries.
Raanta appears to be close to recovering, and possibly could play Thursday. But backup backup Louis Domingue’s struggles — he’s 0-6-0 with a 4.33 goals-against average and .856 save percentage — forced the Coyotes to trade for former New Jersey Devils backup Scott Wedgewood, who started Monday and Tuesday.
The ever-changing cast in goal has resulted in Arizona allowing 56 goals in 13 games; no other Western Conference team had allowed more than 34 through Tuesday’s games.
And while right wing Clayton Keller, the NHL’s rookie of the month in October with nine goals and 15 points, is producing, no other Coyotes player has more than three goals or nine points. Three Sabres players — Jason Pominville, Evander Kane and Jack Eichel, have 12 points, and Pominville and Kane have six goals each.
Arizona center Derek Stepan agrees with his coach that consistency is what’s most lacking.
“I still don’t think we’ve played a full 60-minute game,” Stepan said. “We’ve got to keep pushing to find 60 minutes. … That’s the biggest glaring hole to me. In order to win, it’s not easy to win, you’ve got to play 60 full minutes. You can’t have any mental lapse.”
— FOX Sports Arizona (@FOXSPORTSAZ) October 30, 2017
Housley said it’s “in the back of my mind” that the Coyotes still haven’t won at home, but, “We can’t worry about where they are as a team. We’ve got our own battles to handle and move forward with. The game really comes down to it’s all about us, and what we’re going to do.”
With right wing Justin Bailey’s status for Thursday uncertain because of a lower body injury, Buffalo called up right wing Nicholas Baptiste from Rochester of the American Hockey League, where he had three goals and two assists. Robin Lehner, who is 2-4-1 with a 2.78 goals-against average, is the likely starter in net.