Heart-stopping, pulsating hockey. Yes, it’s only February, but the Arizona Coyotes have already given the hockey world plenty of drama. After a finish for the ages on Monday night against the St. Louis Blues, the Yotes have a winning record, and gave fans an emotional roller coaster along the way.
It looked like the Blues were on their way to victory, but thanks to a furious attack in the closing seconds, the Coyotes played the role of cardiac kids. Clayton Keller scored just before the third-period horn to force overtime, and after a scoreless OT, Conor Garland and Christian Dvorak came through in the shootout to give Arizona an unlikely 4-3 decision. The exciting comeback pushed the Coyotes record to 6-5-1 on the season.
Due to COVID cancellations, the Coyotes are in the midst of six straight games against the Blues. So far, so great. After dropping the first game 4-3 on Groundhog Day, the Yotes responded. There was no Bill Murray-type repeat of that first contest. Instead, Arizona has rattled off three consecutive wins over the talented Blues. The two clubs meet again on Saturday and Monday at Gila River Arena.
Six games in a row against a quality opponent like St. Louis has given this series a playoff feel, even in February. Head coach Rick Tocchet and his players have made adjustments after each outing, and, so far, Tocchet is pressing all the right buttons. The Coyotes have improved in each game. Doing that against the Blues is impressive.
In the Mix in Wild West Division
Despite three straight losses to the Coyotes, St. Louis still leads the Honda West. The Vegas Golden Knights and Colorado Avalanche are right on their tails, just a point back, respectively. And in fourth place, all of a sudden, the surprising Coyotes. If the season ended today, Arizona would be playoff-bound.
Of course, the season doesn’t end today. There is a lot of hockey to be played. But, for a team that got little or no love from preseason prognosticators, Arizona has to feel pretty good about where they stand right now. Their fans certainly do. The excitement from Yotes backers is palpable, not only at home games but on social media during games. The posts, tweets, and comments are positive and upbeat. They love this team. They should.
Las Vegas had the Coyotes ranked 24th in the preseason. Their odds to win the Stanley Cup were an impossible +6000. Meantime, the Blues were +2000, the fourth-best odds to win it all. They said the Coyotes couldn’t score. That’s understandable, considering last season, the club ranked a dismal 23rd in that category. But, these aren’t your father’s Yotes. They’ve made a modest improvement on offense, ranked 20th this season, but the story here goes beyond the number of goals. Their tallies have been timely.
Whenever Arizona needs a goal, they get it. They have that ‘it’ factor right now as good teams do. You can point to stats all day long, but often it’s the intangibles that make the difference. Tocchet’s boys have that feel about them. Instead of analytics and binders of numbers, just watch the Coyotes. They pass the eye test. They come to the rink excited to play. They play with passion and poise. They are engaging and thoughtful in their post-game comments. The team is having fun. That is dangerous for the rest of the West.
With no expectations coming into the season, Arizona is basically playing with house money. If they collapse and fail to make a playoff run, no one will blink an eye. If they keep winning though, look out. The Coyotes are under no pressure, and they are still under the radar. While the Blues, Knights, and Avs all had dreams of hoisting the Cup when the season began, the Coyotes quietly went about their business trying to get better. It’s working so far.
Spreading the Puck Wealth Around
Who are these fourth-place Coyotes? Why are they here? For starters, they share the puck. Six players have three or more goals, but no one has more than seven. Nine players have at least four assists, but no one has more than eight. Any Coyote can bite you at any time.
In the meantime, the netminding is also a team effort. Darcy Kuemper has played ten games with a solid goals-against average (GAA) of 2.50. He’s deserved better as far as his win-loss record is concerned. Antti Raanta is 2-0 despite having a higher GAA of 3.00. Raanta has enjoyed more goal support from his teammates, but, either way, the club feels confident with either player between the pipes.
The Arizona defense has played well. Statistically, they are ranked 13th in the league, but with lots of talent, they can suffocate like the best of them. As the offense shines when it counts most, the Coyotes’ defense clamps down at crunch time.
There’s a long season still ahead of us. The Coyotes will play 44 more times. If this early showing is any indication, however, look for these desert dogs to be a factor all the way through. There is some exciting hockey ahead in the Valle, but make sure your antacid and stress ball are ready if you plan to watch a lot of these games.