After falling just short of earning a playoff berth in 2018-19, it looks like the Arizona Coyotes have their sights set on avoiding another disappointment in 2019-20.
Following Wednesday’s huge 4-2 regulation road win over the Vancouver Canucks, the ‘Yotes find themselves as winners of three of their last four, which has put them in a three-way tie at 74 points for the West’s two wild-card spots. They’re trending in the right direction when it comes to the playoff picture, as they’re 5-3-0 in their last eight contests. The team has also played well in losses, and arguably deserved a better fate in more of them than not – when taking late-game empty-netters out of the equation, Arizona hasn’t been defeated by more than one goal since a 4-2 loss to the Anaheim Ducks Jan. 29, a span of 16 games.
Last week in this space, we wrote that the team’s highest-paid players, namely Clayton Keller and Nick Schmaltz, needed to step up and be the team’s best players down the stretch as the outcomes of individual games start to matter more and more. Well, in two contests last week, Keller posted three points (all in Saturday’s win over the Buffalo Sabres), while Schmaltz scored a huge third-period goal in the Vancouver win.
Phil Kessel, whose play has been roundly criticized by many this season, stepped up as well, contributing a big second-period goal in the win over the Sabres. Even Oliver Ekman-Larsson, who is in the midst of one of his worst offensive seasons as a pro, was able to elevate his game, posting an assist and a 200-foot empty-net goal in each of his last two games.
With only 14 games remaining and absolutely no room for error in the standings, these players and others will need to continue contributing to Coyotes’ wins if the team is going to make the playoffs for the first time since 2012. As we mentioned previously, the five-team race for the West’s wild-card spots is an absolute mess – the Canucks, Coyotes, and Winnipeg Jets are all tied at 74 points, while the Minnesota Wild and Nashville Predators are right behind with 73 and 72 points, respectively.
The Calgary Flames and the Pacific Division’s No. 3 spot are also in reach at 77 points, but that’s a conversation for another day. Right now, Arizona needs to focus on just one game at a time, which was a point that head coach Rick Tocchet made during his postgame media availability on Saturday at Gila River Arena.
When asked about how many points he thinks it will take to make the playoffs, Tocchet stated, “I’m looking for two points on Wednesday (against Vancouver).” “I don’t play that game,” Tocchet continued. “Honestly, I just worry about two points. That’s all we can do right now.”
He’s right. Wins will put the Coyotes into a playoff spot, while losses will represent significant setbacks to their postseason hopes. Every game from here on out will be considered the most important one of the season. The next three, in particular, will hold significant importance, and will go a long way toward determining Arizona’s postseason fate – all will come against teams they are directly competing against for playoff spots, essentially making them “four-point games” that we hear so much about at this time of year.
The club has been getting outstanding goaltending all season, as is evidenced by the team’s goals-against average of 2.59, which is the third-best mark in the league. If that continues, and the Coyotes are able to score a few more goals here and there, they have as good a chance as anyone at grabbing one of the Western Conference’s playoff berths.
We at The Hockey Writers can’t wait to see how the rest of the season unfolds. It should be a wild ride.
Coyotes Week in Review
After suffering a disappointing home loss at the hands of the Florida Panthers on Feb. 25, the Coyotes were idle for three days before returning to Gila River Arena for a Kachina Saturday matchup against the Sabres. In what was deemed a “must-win” game by many, this one had an inauspicious beginning for Arizona. The ‘Yotes fell behind on two quick Buffalo goals which came in a span of 44 seconds, and trailed 2-0 after 20 minutes.
The Coyotes previously faced a two-goal first-period deficit against a bad team on Feb. 13 in Ottawa and were unable to recover, so there was a “here we go again” atmosphere beginning to materialize inside Gila River Arena during the first intermission. Once the action resumed, though, the ‘Yotes quickly jumped all over the Sabres to regain control – Jordan Oesterle, Phil Kessel, and Clayton Keller all scored in a span of 5:10 to turn a two-goal deficit into a one-goal lead.
Keller added an insurance goal late in the third, and Oliver Ekman-Larsson scored a shorthanded 200-foot empty-netter to put the cherry on top of a 5-2 Arizona victory.
Following their comeback win over the Sabres, the Coyotes had a three-day break from action before kicking off a three-game road trip on Wednesday evening against the Canucks at Rogers Arena. The ‘Yotes got on the board early in Vancity with a crazy power-play goal from Carl Soderberg and held a fortuitous 1-0 lead after 20 minutes as a result.
No scoring took place in the middle frame, and the Canucks woke up in the third, scoring two goals in 2:57 to wrestle the lead away from Arizona. However, the Coyotes responded with two quick goals of their own – Nick Schmaltz capitalized on a Vancouver turnover for his ninth of the season at 10:10, and, 2:29 later, Lawson Crouse tipped Ekman-Larsson’s point shot past Thatcher Demko to once again give his team the lead.
Arizona then faced a furious Canucks assault in the closing minutes, but Ekman-Larsson again iced the game with a 200-foot empty-netter to give the Coyotes a monumentally important regulation win in Vancouver.
A Look Ahead
With two points already in their back pocket, the ‘Yotes will continue their Canadian roadie on Friday night, when they’ll visit the Scotiabank Saddledome for a contest against the Calgary Flames. The Flames have won four of their last six, but they’ve largely been an inconsistent team after rattling off five straight wins from Jan. 2 to Jan. 11. In 21 games since, Calgary is 10-9-2 and has failed to string together anything longer than a two-game winning streak.
The Flames have managed to hold onto their playoff spot through it all, though, and are fresh off of an emotional 3-2 comeback victory over the Columbus Blue Jackets on Wednesday. This important Pacific Division tilt between two teams who haven’t met since Dec. 10 will get started at 7:00 P.M. in Cowtown.
The Coyotes will then enjoy a weekend off in Western Canada before getting back to work on Monday at Winnipeg’s Bell MTS Place with a crucial contest against the Jets. The barn in Manitoba was a house of horrors for Arizona for most of Winnipeg’s existence before this season – the ‘Yotes went 0-8-2 in their first 10 trips to the city after the Jets relocated from Atlanta, but they picked up a road win there in the previous meeting between the teams back on Oct. 15.
As with the previous two games on this trip, this contest will have huge playoff implications for both clubs – at the end of play on Wednesday, the Jets and Coyotes were tied at 74 points, with equal games played. This one will get started at 7:00 P.M. local time in the ‘Peg (5:00 P.M. in Arizona).
Pacific Division Roundup
With exactly 30 days remaining in the 2019-20 regular season, the Vegas Golden Knights find themselves with a very tenuous hold on first place in the Pacific Division, with the Edmonton Oilers right behind. Here’s a look at how Arizona’s other division rivals fared last week:
Anaheim Ducks (67 GP, 27-32-8, 62 points)
- Last week: 2-2-0 (3-2 W vs PIT, 3-0 L vs NJ, 6-2 L at CHI, 4-3 OTW at COL)
- Analysis: The Ducks kept fighting last week, as they picked up two more wins over two more playoff teams, giving them a 3-2-1 record in their last six contests. Wednesday’s OT win in Colorado was especially impressive when considering Anaheim lost 6-2 in Chicago the night before.
- Player of the week: Ryan Miller – 1-1-0 record, 47 saves on 51 shots (.922 SV%, 2.82 GAA)
- This week: Fri vs TOR, Sun vs MIN, Tue vs OTT
Calgary Flames (68 GP, 35-26-7, 77 points, Pacific No. 3)
- Last week: 2-1-1 (4-3 OTL at NSH, 4-3 L at TB, 3-0 W at FLA, 3-2 OTW vs CBJ)
- Analysis: With around 10 minutes remaining in Wednesday’s game against the Blue Jackets, it looked as if the Flames would lose for the third time in four tries, but they clearly had other ideas – Elias Lindholm, Matthew Tkachuk, and T.J. Brodie scored three unanswered goals in regulation and overtime and Calgary salvaged a five-point week to maintain their hold on one of the Pacific Division’s playoff spots.
- Player of the week: Mikael Backlund – Goal, 4 assists, +1, 13 SOG
- This week: Fri vs AZ, Sun vs VGK
Edmonton Oilers (67 GP, 36-23-8, 80 points, Pacific No. 2)
- Last week: 3-0-0 (3-2 W vs WPG, 8-3 W at NSH, 2-1 OTW at DAL)
- Analysis: Remember last week when we said something about the Oilers’ secondary scoring going silent? Well, so much for that – Connor McDavid, Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, and presumptive 2020 Hart Trophy winner Leon Draisaitl combined for 25 points across Edmonton’s slate of three games. Who needs secondary scoring when your top scorers are creating that much offense?
- Player of the week: Leon Draisaitl – 6 goals, 3 assists, +3, 15 SOG
- This week: Thu at CHI, Sat vs CBJ, Mon vs VGK, Wed vs WPG
Los Angeles Kings (66 GP, 25-35-6, 56 points)
- Last week: 2-0-0 (2-1 OTW vs NJ, 4-1 W at VGK)
- Analysis: It appears as if the Kings have fully embraced the spoiler role as the season winds down – they’re 6-3-1 in their last 10 contests and have picked up wins over five playoff hopefuls during that stretch. Despite their struggles in 2019-20, Los Angeles has been significantly better at the Staples Center than they’ve been on the road, and they’ll close out the season with 11 of 16 on home ice. You can’t overlook this team down the stretch, or they’ll make you pay.
- Player of the week: Anze Kopitar – 2 goals, assist, +2, 6 SOG
- This week: Thu vs TOR, Sat vs MIN, Mon vs COL, Wed vs OTT
San Jose Sharks (66 GP, 29-33-4, 62 points)
- Last week: 3-0-0 (3-2 OTW vs NJ, 5-0 W vs PIT, 5-2 W vs TOR)
- Analysis: In this week’s episode of THW’s Hockey Makes No Sense series, let’s take a look at the Sharks. After losing five straight games in regulation from Feb. 17 to Feb. 25, San Jose returned home and, as expected by absolutely no one, promptly blew out the Pittsburgh Penguins and Toronto Maple Leafs, while also picking up an overtime win over the New Jersey Devils. This team scored exactly six goals on a four-game East Coast road trip just days earlier. Go figure out the NHL.
- Player of the week: Martin Jones – 3-0-0 record, 76 saves on 80 shots (.950 SV%, 1.33 GAA), 1 shutout
- This week: Thu vs MIN, Sat vs OTT, Sun vs COL, Wed at CHI
Vancouver Canucks (66 GP, 34-26-6, 74 points, No. 1 Wild Card)
- Last week: 0-4-0 (5-2 L at OTT, 4-2 L at TOR, 5-3 L at CBJ, 4-2 L vs AZ)
- Analysis: Last week in this space, we wrote about the injury to starting goaltender Jacob Markstrom, and wondered about Vancouver’s chances of staying alive without him. Well, a week later, things aren’t looking great – the Canucks lost all four of their games in regulation, and spectacularly blew 3-1 and 2-1 third-period leads against Columbus and Arizona, respectively, in the process. Overall, Travis Green’s squad has just 4 wins in their last 14 games dating back to Feb. 2 – is this team regressing to the mean after a 14-3-0 stretch from Dec. 19 to Feb. 1?
- Player of the week: J.T. Miller – 2 goals, 4 assists, 13 SOG
- This week: Fri vs COL, Sun vs CBJ, Tue vs NYI
Vegas Golden Knights (68 GP, 37-23-8, 82 points, Pacific No. 1)
- Last week: 2-1-0 (4-2 W vs BUF, 4-1 L vs LA, 3-0 W vs NJ)
- Analysis: The Golden Knights just wrapped up 10-game stretch which included nine games at T-Mobile Arena, and they earned 18 of 20 possible points to take control of first place in the Pacific. However, the Oilers are just two points behind and have a game in hand, while Vegas will play only 4 of their remaining 14 games on home ice. Can they hang on and earn their second division title in three seasons?
- Player of the week: Robin Lehner – 2-1-0 record, 59 saves on 61 shots (.967 SV%, 1.00 GAA)
- This week: Fri at WPG, Sun at CGY, Mon at EDM
New for this week – a look at the teams Arizona is competing with for the West’s wild-card spots.
Winnipeg Jets (68 GP, 34-28-6, 74 points, No. 2 Wild Card)
- Last week: 2-1-0 (3-0 W vs WSH, 3-2 L at EDM, 3-1 W vs BUF)
- Analysis: The Jets have done just enough to stick around in the playoff race as of late, as they’re 5-3-1 in their last nine games, and 9-5-2 over their last 16. Their position is far from secure, though, and they’ll play 8 of their final 14 on the road. Can they hang around and return to the playoffs for the third straight season?
- Player of the week: Connor Hellebuyck – 2-1-0 record, 78 saves on 82 shots (.951 SV%, 1.35 GAA), 1 shutout
- This week: Fri vs VGK, Mon vs AZ, Wed at EDM
Minnesota Wild (66 GP, 33-26-7, 73 points, 10th place)
- Last week: 3-1-0 (7-1 W at DET, 5-0 W at CBJ, 4-3 L vs WSH, 3-1 W vs NSH)
- Analysis: Minnesota’s front office seemingly threw in the towel when they dealt forward Jason Zucker to the Pittsburgh Penguins on Feb. 10 for a pick, a prospect, and a struggling Alex Galchenyuk, but the players apparently didn’t get the memo that the season was over. In 11 games since then, the Wild have posted a 7-3-1 record to climb back into the playoff conversation in the West. The team has scored three or more goals in 7 of their last 8 games – is that sustainable, or will they fall back to Earth?
- Player of the week: Kevin Fiala – 4 goals, 5 assists, +6, 16 SOG
- This week: Thu at SJ, Sat at LA, Sun at ANA
Nashville Predators (66 GP, 32-26-8, 72 points, 11th place)
- Last week: 1-3-0 (4-3 OTW vs CGY, 3-2 L vs COL, 8-3 L vs EDM, 3-1 L at MIN)
- Analysis: The Predators started the week with points in six of their last seven, but finished it with three straight regulation defeats – life comes at you fast. They’ll be back in action on Thursday against the Dallas Stars, but will then play their next five on the road. After Pekka Rinne’s disappointing showing on Monday against Edmonton, will the net be Juuse Saros’ for the rest of the season as Nashville tries to make a run?
- Player of the week: Roman Josi – 2 goals, 3 assists, 20 SOG
- This week: Thu vs DAL, Sat at DAL, Tue at MTL