Coyotes playing with sense of urgency in home stretch
Given the timing and schedule at this point of the hockey season, there’s an acceleration by teams to rush into postseason contention.
Heading down the stretch and into the final weeks of the NHL campaign, the sprint to determinate playoff teams is underway in earnest. While players and coaches eschew any dialogue about the prospect of postseason play, that’s a topic on the front burners of fans and the media.
Going forward, the discussion usually centers around one shift at a time and one save at a time. Collectively, these tenets of play form the core of a team’s approach.
Equally important is the thinking and mindset of the schedule itself. With less than two months remaining in the season, nine teams are battling for the two final playoff spots in the Western Conference. Among teams in the Eastern Conference, Montreal and Columbus are trying to create separation from seven other teams within striking difference for the final postseason spots.
Add the Arizona Coyotes to this mix.
For a club that has not qualified for the playoffs since the spring of 2012, the task ahead seems challenging at best. That’s when goalie Mike Smith led the Coyotes into the Western Conference Finals against the eventual Stanley Cup-winning Los Angeles Kings.
At the All-Star break and through their mandatory bye week in late January, the Coyotes were but four points out of a final Western Conference playoff spot. Following a 4-2 defeat to Columbus at Gila River Arena in early February, the Coyotes experienced a losing streak that sent the club tumbling down the standings.
With teams like Minnesota, Vancouver, St. Louis, Colorado, Edmonton, Chicago and Los Angeles all clawing for playoff positions, the need for the Coyotes to right their ship becomes paramount.
“We have fewer than 30 games left and need every point we can get,” Arizona defenseman Jordan Oesterle said. “Yeah, there’s a big sense of urgency around here right now.”
If the Coyotes are to leapfrog over teams and into contention, the club will have to continue without key components. Hit with major injuries since training camp, those who did not start the season with Arizona continue as major contributors.
Forward Conor Garland, a fifth-round selection in the 2015 draft, was called up after leading the AHL’s Tucson Roadrunners in scoring over the first quarter of the season. Since arriving, he has pumped in 11 goals in his first 27 games. Along the way, Garland became the first rookie in Coyotes history to score goals in four consecutive games (Jan. 4-12).
“There is always an urgency,” Garland said. “There are many teams playing with an urgency here, and we’re one of them.”
If the Coyotes qualify for postseason play, those in the trainer’s room could make an all-star team. Beginning with goalie Antti Raanta, who went down with a season-ending knee injury on Nov. 27, the list expanded.
Last summer, Christian Dvorak signed a six-year extension and remains sidelined with a torn pectoral muscle. He only recently returned to the ice.
Then there’s Nick Schmaltz, brought over earlier this season from Chicago. Schmaltz appeared in just 17 games for the Coyotes and picked up five goals and nine assists for 14 points but has been sidelined since Dec. 30 with his return also uncertain.
In all, the Coyotes lost 241 man-games to injuries through their first 54 games on the ice.
With the attempt to overcome injuries and face formidable opponents, coach Rick Tocchet understands the moment at hand.
“There’s urgency in Dallas and in San Jose, and with us,” Tocchet said. “Look, guys are working hard, and we’ll come back and practice hard. That’s our go-to approach. Tomorrow is another day, and we need to figure out how out how to get some wins.”
— Mark Brown
(March 7, 2019)