After fast start, Coyotes emerging as top team in NHL standings
Given the nature of any marathon NHL season, most players tend to view games early as necessary but not terribly demanding and intense.
Those encounters are usually reserved for the late season and each shift is magnified.
Over the first third of their current season, the Arizona Coyotes (17-9-4 and in first place in the Pacific Division as of Dec. 6) did not encounter the kinds of games that truly test their mettle. Then again, one of the main goals of coach Rick Tocchet is to prevent a string of losses.
Perhaps the first true measure of the season transpired in early December, and the Coyotes answered the bell. In defeating the Philadelphia Flyers 3-1 on Dec. 5 on the road, the Coyotes showed enough character to challenge a formidable force. Coming into this game, the Flyers had won five in a row and were 6-0-1 in their previous seven games. Plus, they were unbeaten in their previous 11 home games and that’s the longest streak without a regulation loss in 10 years.
If the Coyotes wanted to prove worthy of competition against a team on a roll and demonstrate the opening third of the season was a steppingstone to greater success, that point was made. After Conor Garland scored the game-winning goal in that win over the Flyers, he identified the value of challenging a highly competitive club in their building.
“If you want to be a winning team, you have to be able to play with the elite,” said Garland, who was the Coyotes top goal scorer through the first 30 games. “To shut down a high-powered offense like (the Flyers) that is huge. It’s something we have to keep doing.”
Over their initial 30 games of the season, the Coyotes had a plus-15 in goal differential and the principal reason was goaltender Darcy Kuemper. For his first 19 games in net, Kuemper (pictured) had a 1.97 goals-against average and was the only NHL goaltender with a goals-against under two. As he saved the Coyotes numerous times over the first third of the season, he managed to shut out the Flyers until Matt Niskansen scored late in the game.
While defeating a team like the Flyers in their building may sound gratifying, Tocchet said the game was representative of several over the first two months. Despite the win, play was sloppy at times but Kuemper managed to pick up his teammates each time.
If the Coyotes are to stay competitive in a highly competitive Western Conference, Kuemper will have to continue his high-wire act and Antti Raanta, who posted a 2.66 GAA for his first 10 starts of the season, must provide equally productive outings.
“The Flyers were all over us (in that December game), and (Kuemper) was outstanding,” Tocchet said. “I thought we were a little sloppy, and a win is a win, but I’m not sure if we play that way that we can be a first-place team or hang around. Looking back on the first third of the season, I like the resiliency and the way we bounced back after some tough losses. If you want to be a good team, keeping the losing streak to a minimum is huge. Plus, we’re getting outstanding goaltending.”
If the Coyotes continue to make a push toward first place in the Pacific Division and retain that stature, right wing Phil Kessel will likely assume a large role. Hobbled by leg soreness most of the season, the veteran missed considerable practice time, but Tocchet is confident of his contribution over the final two-thirds of the season.
In that Flyers game, Kessel picked up his second two-goal game for the Coyotes and both on the power play. His initial goal just 2:55 into the game was only his second tally since Nov. 2, but his coach appears ready to recognize his value.
“(Kessel) is starting to get healthy and he’s had a few practices under his belt,” Tocchet said. “He has to get out there and practice and he feels better that way. He has to stick to shooting the puck.”
A healthy and productive Kessel, plus Kuemper’s continued solid efforts, could push the Coyotes further this season than they could have contemplated.
— Mark Brown
(Jan. 8, 2020)