Arizona Rubber

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Strong finish to season an encouraging sign for Coyotes

 

St Louis Blues v Arizona Coyotes

Most like to think the mark of a season is how things finish, and not necessarily how an experience begins.

For the Arizona Coyotes, an abysmal start foreshadowed a difficult season, but the end is clearly encouraging. Plus, the future seems beyond bright with Clayton Keller, Brendan Perlini and Max Domi up front and a veteran cast on the blue line, headed by Oliver Ekman-Larsson.

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The effort and production over the second half of the season sends a message to every hockey player, youth and beyond, about the value of effort, determination and energy. To that end, Coyotes’ head coach Rick Tocchet constantly stresses the need to practice.

Over the first few months of the season, practice time for the Coyotes was severely limited. That fact, asserted Tocchet, was a major reason for the slow and challenging start. From their home opener Oct. 7 against the Vegas Golden Knights through Dec. 14, the Coyotes played only 11 of their first 33 games at home.

One reason why the start was so difficult was a brutal and harsh travel schedule. That prevented adequate practice time and, as Tocchet noted, made for a steep, learning curve.

The situation was exacerbated as many players from last season were familiar with the style and direction of then-coach Dave Tippett. When Tocchet took the controls last July, he implemented a new system, and those who represented the core of this team for several years, notably former captain Shane Doan, who retired, and goaltender Mike Smith, who was traded, left the foundation shaken.

By the second half of the season, the value of practice time was realized. After a string of victories once the calendar flipped into 2018, players were able to digest Tocchet’s system and implement his designs. The result was an impressive streak, and the Coyotes won seven of nine games between Feb. 12 and March 3.

“Finishing strong is huge for next season,” said Larsson. “By finishing solid, and playing the right way, that will definitely help us coming into next year.”

If there one stretch of games that characterized the Coyotes surge, look no further than late March. In defeating two playoff-bound teams in the Tampa Bay Lightning and the Golden Knights, the Coyotes began to realize the fruits of their labor. Throw in a 6-0 shutout Antti Raanta posted against the St. Louis Blues on March 31, and these victories merely reinforce the need to lay a firm foundation for the future.

“To complete the season the way we are means everything,” said Domi. “It’s unfortunate we were in the situation we were, but we’re treating the last weeks like we’re competing in the playoffs. We played teams playing for playoff spots and take the experience against those teams. Next year, come early April, we’ll be in their shoes and we’ll be making a run for it. That’s all you can do, prepare for that moment, be a professional about it, and finish the right way.”

One push for a strong finish was the emergence of the Richard PanikDerek Stepan-Keller line. Over the course of the season, Keller developed as one of the most dynamic players in the NHL and a prime candidate for the Calder Trophy. Beyond his achievements on the ice, Tocchet points to Keller’s character and demeanor as key factors in his emergence and the late-season surge.

“I’ve thrown these words around, ‘hockey nerd,’ and (Keller) is definitely a hockey nerd,” Tocchet said. “(Keller) watches hockey 24 hours a day and he wants to be better every day. He watches the star players in our league to see what they are doing. Non-stop, he asks me about guys like Sidney Crosby and what they’re doing on the power play. And in practice, he practices hard. That makes my job easier.”

If there is a lesson to be gleaned from the opening weeks, practice is imperative, and players who embrace the importance of practice generally succeed.

Photo/Norm Hall

— Mark Brown

(May 8, 2018)