For much of this COVID-shortened NHL season, the surprising Arizona Coyotes have found themselves in the fourth spot of the Honda West Division. The top four teams in each realigned group will make the Stanley Cup playoffs this year. With more than half of the season now in the books, the Coyotes have slipped to fifth place, outside the postseason picture, looking in. There is a reason for optimism, however, that the club can rally and grab that coveted fourth position by the season’s end.
Right now, there is a clear separation of most of the West teams. The top squads are the Vegas Golden Knights, Colorado Avalanche, and Minnesota Wild. The bottom of the division looks to be home for the three California franchises. That leaves two more organizations battling it out between fourth and fifth: the Coyotes and the St. Louis Blues.
As things currently stand, Vegas and Colorado are in a virtual dead heat for the penthouse, while Minnesota seems to have a stronghold on third. Then things get interesting. The Blues are in that fourth and final playoff spot over Arizona but by the slimmest of margins. It is not out of the question that these two teams will seesaw between fourth and fifth down the stretch. For the Yotes to claim that last playoff bid when the regular season concludes, some things will almost certainly have to happen.
First of all, Arizona must be realistic. The Coyotes should not hang their heads in shame if they fall short against the mighty Avs. The talented Golden Knights are also a top-tier team. The key for them will be making sure they feast on the division bottom feeders.
While the Coyotes don’t match up well with Colorado, there is no reason head coach Rick Tocchet’s bunch can’t dominate the Anaheim Ducks, Los Angeles Kings, and San Jose Sharks when it matters most.
Colorado makes a lot of teams look bad. The Coyotes don’t match up well with them, yet they’re right in the middle of the race. Arizona only plays the Avalanche one more time. Nine of Arizona’s last 21 contests are against the Cali teams. While the Ducks and Kings games are very winnable, the meetings with the Sharks may very well decide the whole thing.
The Coyotes have rocked San Jose this season. Just last week, the desert dogs took two straight from the Sharks on back-to-back nights, including a shutout win. Each time Arizona and San Jose have faced off this season, the Coyotes skated away with points. All but once, Arizona won the game. This dominance must continue in order for the Coyotes to make the playoffs. Four more meetings with San Jose should result in at least six points, and with some puck luck, seven or even eight points is a distinct possibility.
No matter who the Coyotes are playing, the team must compensate for their lack of depth. The depth at forward isn’t great. There’s not enough offense from the blue line. Outside of their top guys, there isn’t much to count on. That may not matter against the San Joses of the world. It will absolutely matter against teams like the Wild and Blues.
The blue line has to pick up the slack if the Yotes are to play on after game 56. The scoring hasn’t been awful thus far – Arizona can usually put up three goals a night – but too often, the team acts like the girl with the curl. When they’re good, they are very, very good, but when they are bad, they are horrid. Forget about actual goal input of a number of shots on goal – it’s the lack of quality shots that haunts the Coyotes on bad nights. When the team is not playing well, it seems they can’t buy a good shot. Improvement in that department could go a long way.
Conor Garland has been hit hard by opponents who know well that he is a vital cog in the Coyotes’ attack. Clayton Keller has been fine, but for a true playoff run, Arizona needs him to be even better. Considering the money he makes and the lack of depth on the team, a super effort from Keller might be a necessity.
It’s no secret that Arizona is a small team. On many occasions this season, players have been knocked around by the bigger teams. The large clubs figure punishing the little Coyotes is worth the risk. Even if a penalty is called, the Arizona power play isn’t scaring anyone. Picking up special teams’ production could curb some of the rough stuff from the big guys.
Phil Kessel’s hat trick last weekend gave Coyotes fans some extra hope. Kessel is known for scoring in bunches. If he can get hot now and carry that mojo to the finish line, the playoff chances increase even more.
The Avalanche have been a legit Cup contender from day one – we know this. Arizona doesn’t have to be overwhelmed by the prowess of the Avalanche. The team they need to top is the Blues, and that is very, very doable. While the Coyotes will try to tear apart the West’s bottom three, St. Louis will be playing the division’s upper echelon.
Taking Care Of Business
Like many teams, the Blues schedule has been very lopsided. They’ve basically played the Cali teams and the Coyotes. Their easier games are largely gone. Now, St. Louis will be facing better clubs a lot. Six dates with Colorado and four against Vegas highlight a daunting task for St. Louis.
If the Blues falter in these games and the Coyotes come through against the Sharks, Ducks, and Kings, Arizona suddenly looks in very good shape for extra hockey. Arizona will be rooting for teams like Colorado to flex their muscles and take out St. Louis with superb team defense. Then Arizona will just have to hold up their end of the bargain.
The trade deadline will play a part, too. Will the Coyotes make big moves, tinker, or hold pat? Will their position in the playoff race play a part in that decision-making? Those answers will be revealed soon enough. Regardless of what the roster ultimately looks like, the formula for playoff hockey is simple. Win the games you should win, hang tough in the others, and hope for some St. Louis hiccups. This is a very real possibility.
The Coyotes match-up well with St. Louis. They proved that during their seven-game regular-season series earlier this year. That extra Arizona win in that seven-game match-up could loom very large when all is said and done. Arizona simply needs to play their brand of hockey, and things could work out just fine. Beat up on Golden State clubs, and St. Louis will be singing the blues.