The Arizona Coyotes actually had their goal in their grasp, however temporarily. Admittedly for just a few hours, between the point at which they beat the Detroit Red Wings and the Minnesota Wild won their game on Saturday night, the Coyotes had pulled ahead of the latter in the race for the final Western Conference wild-card spot.
Following the Wild’s victory over the Calgary Flames, the Coyotes are now back out. They’re just a single point behind though, with 17 games left to play, the same as both the Avalanche, who are a single point behind them, and the Wild.
Heading into the season, the deck had been stacked against them and countless injuries haven’t helped matters. Nevertheless, through it all, the Coyotes have stayed in the playoff hunt. Even though they have just a 42.3% chance to make them according to Sports Club Stats Sunday morning, there’s every reason to believe they will defy the odds. Here are the top three.
3. Coyotes the Hottest Team in the NHL
The Coyotes have won a league-high six straight games, which is obviously impressive. They’ve also outscored their opponents by a two-to-one margin 22-11 in those games. Granted, a few of those goals shouldn’t actually count as they were shootout winners, but the fact remains that the Coyotes are clicking when it matters most.
Rather than getting lost in the pack of teams below them, they’ve been making up lost ground. The fear may be they’re peaking too early, but, for a team that hasn’t made the playoffs since before the last lockout in 2012, however far they get would almost be an accomplishment in and of itself.
Sure, another season after which they finish on the outside looking in would be a disappointment and perhaps require John Chayka to justify his position as general manager, which he’s held going on three seasons now. However, considering no one anticipated them to be playoff contenders and where they are now, it’s a clear cliché, but, after years of rebuilding, making the playoffs would be their Stanley Cup. They’re playing with house money without any of the pressure other teams battling for positions are under.
For example, in the Eastern Conference, the Columbus Blue Jackets went all in at the trade deadline to go on a run, the Pittsburgh Penguins are always a playoff threat and Montreal Canadiens GM Marc Bergevin had gone on record saying the Habs would compete for a spot.
In the Western Conference, after they made the playoffs last year, it would be a step back for the Avalanche to miss them. Ditto for the Wild, who have six straight appearances, with head coach Bruce Boudreau guaranteeing they would make it. In contrast, no one expects the Coyotes to, and they’re flying under the radar as a result, much to their benefit, especially recently it would seem.
2. A Relatively Easy Schedule
One point out, with the same amount of games played compared to the teams they need to catch, the Coyotes may technically not have their destiny in their hands, but they’re not far off. Two games will go very far to determining the Coyotes’ fate, as they face the Avalanche and the Wild in consecutive games at the end of March.
As the Coyotes find themselves sandwiched between the two in the standings, with the Wild holding down the last spot by a single point over the Desert Dogs, all they have to do is keep winning to make it. It may not seem so simple, but that’s effectively what they’ve been doing over the last little. See Point No. 3 for proof to that effect.
Furthermore, of the Coyotes’ 17 games remaining, over half (nine) are at home, with just two sets of back-to-backs left. Ten are meanwhile against non-playoff opponents. The Wild also have nine home games left, but with three back-to-backs left. Only four of their games are against non-playoff opponents to boot.
Meanwhile, the Avalanche have 10 home games left, with two back-to-backs left. Only nine are against non-playoff opponents. The disparity in the difficulties of their schedule and the Avalanche’s isn’t as great, but the Coyotes really only need to do better than the Wild. They can successfully hold off the Avalanche by just keeping pace with them. That’s a very realistic goal, much like the playoffs themselves at this point.
1. Coyotes Getting Healthy
There is an admitted caveat here. Even though the Coyotes are getting healthy, Derek Stepan just got hurt for what will likely be the rest of the regular season. It’s just one more example of how it’s the Coyotes versus the world and the universe is against them.
Nevertheless, fellow-center Christian Dvorak, who had been out since the start of the season following pectoral surgery, has just returned from injury. Michael Grabner (out since December) and Jason Demers (out since November) should be quick to follow.
Of course, No. 1 goalie Antti Raanta and top-six center Nick Schmaltz aren’t expected back at all but every little bit helps. Whenever you can add reinforcements at the trade deadline, it’s a good thing. When you don’t have to give up anything in exchange, it’s gravy. When you know in advance the players in question won’t wreck any chemistry, there is no downside… and the chemistry that’s been built is clearly potent.
It’s been a team effort, from how Chayka has assembled the squad to a Jack Adams Trophy-caliber coaching job care of Rick Tocchet. Backup Darcy Kuemper has been holding the fort with a near-career-high .918 save percentage. The newly acquired Alex Galchenyuk has come on as of late to give leading-scorer Clayton Keller a run for his money.
With both capable of playing center and the return of Dvorak, there is every reason to believe the Coyotes can continue to replace Stepan’s contributions by committee up until he’s scheduled to return by the end of the season. And, at that point, who knows? Anything can happen, but it’s a fair bet that, whatever it is, it will include the Coyotes.
After 10 years of writing hockey, Ryan decided it was as good a time as any to actually join The Hockey Writers for the 2014-15 season. Having appeared as a guest on such programs as CBC Radio One’s Daybreak, Ryan has written for such publications as the Montreal Gazette and Bleacher Report and worked for the NHL itself and his hometown Montreal Canadiens. He currently covers the Habs for THW as a columnist.