They were stung by a questionable goal in the first period and botched five power plays — including two minutes worth of 5-on-3 time.
They were blitzed for four goals in a wild, seven-goal second period, including three in a two-minute span when they were almost run right out of America West Arena. Their usually stellar goalie once again struggled against the team he grew up watching.
But the Coyotes might have survived it all Thursday night, might have lived to laugh off the exposure of their leaky defense, if they could have found a way to stay out of the penalty box down the stretch of a 5-4 loss to the Toronto Maple Leafs.
“We have to give ourselves a chance,'' Coyotes defenseman David Tanabe said. “We're killing ourselves with too many bad penalties.''
After Toronto turned a 2-1 deficit into a 5-2 lead with four rapid-fire goals on Phoenix's Sean Burke in the second period, the Coyotes crawled back within a goal on Ladislav Nagy's second goal with 12:17 left to play. They had the momentum, the pressure and the crowd of 13,783 bearing down on Toronto goalie Mikael Tellqvist, playing in only his fifth NHL game.
So what happened? Coyote Chris Gratton slashed Leafs captain Mats Sundin. Landon Wilson was called for interference in the neutral zone. Nagy — after being pulled down in front of the Toronto net and getting no reaction from referee Brad Watson, certainly got one when he took a retaliatory crosscheck with three minutes left to play.
“With three minutes left, after I am held, the referee calls that?'' Nagy said. “I know I can't do that, but it was frustrating.''
So Phoenix spent six of the last 12 minutes killing off its own stupidity, helping Toronto smother the clock and escape with a win.
“It's not one or two guys, it's a team thing,'' winger Tyson Nash said. “We get caught up yelling at the refs, we lose focus and before you know it we're in the box again. It's not the refs, it's us. We fought back, but then we didn't play smart.''
In their first three games, the Coyotes had six goals and three wins because they kept control of the tempo and their emotions. In the last two games, the Coyotes scored eight goals and lost them both — getting into shooting and shouting matches they can't win.
Playing for the first time in five days against a team finishing up a five-game road trip, the Coyotes tried to keep the pace high and wear out the older Leafs. They came up with 33 shots, a ton of scoring chances, two power-play goals and enough offense to win most games.
Discipline? Non-existent. So much for a lesson supposedly learned in Saturday's 5-4 loss to Philadelphia — which looked an awful lot like this one at times.
“Why whack the stick out of someone's hands? That's going to be called. It was called last game,'' Phoenix coach Bob Francis said. “I know Laddy felt there should have been a penalty called on a previous play — I feel the same way — but you can't go cross-check a guy with three minutes left.''
Toronto has now won six straight meetings with Phoenix and has peppered Burke, a Windsor, Ont., native, for 10 goals in the last two. Burke has allowed 10 goals in his last two starts and felt he was more to blame than the penalties.
“When we score four we have to win, that's the bottom line,'' Burke said. “Obviously we have to be more disciplined, but I have to keep the other team to three goals and under. With a young group back there, that's what I'm here for.''