Coyotes going ‘inch by inch’ looking for playoff berth
That’s a number that should be ingrained in the hockey souls of each member of the Arizona Coyotes.
That number represents minutes in a game and if the Coyotes are to qualify for the Stanley Cup Playoffs for the first time since 2012, the specter of 60 looms imperative. Between now and Game 82 in early April, there can be no passengers and no excuses. The intensity of games down the stretch escalates and each shift becomes magnified.
Efforts now from every player demand a full 60-minute game, a 200-foot effort and a heightened concentration level.
That’s because the NHL schedule has hit a rather critical stage, and several teams find themselves dancing on the playoff bubble. Over the course of the season, the Coyotes tasted first place on several occasions in the Pacific Division, and how to succeed in the stretch run should dominate their attention.
“It’s the second half now and everything goes inch by inch,” said Coyotes forward Lawson Crouse. “When you take a look at the standings, everyone is climbing, and everyone is here. So when you get a lead, you really need to lock it in and continue to play the same way that you grabbed that lead. Can’t change it up.”
From the opening week of January and through early February, the Coyotes exhibited an uneasy stretch. While participants realized the effort in several games had to be stronger, opportunities to turn things around began to dwindle.
From Jan. 8 through Antti Raanta’s 13th career shutout when he blanked Edmonton at home on Feb. 4, the Coyotes managed only one victory in a string of nine games. In that period, their lofty position in the Western Conference sunk and by early February, they found themselves on the Stanley Cup bubble.
Going forward, that 3-0 win at home over the Oilers foreshadowed a window to the remaining weeks of the season. In order to traverse through the maze of other clubs, that reality of playing a full 60 minutes becomes critical.
Two factors emerged as important and dictate what the club hopes is a rewarding stretch.
Initially, the Coyotes did engage the Oilers for those full 60 minutes, and the defense kept the lethal Edmonton offense to the perimeter.
“Many division games will look like that,” said Arizona defenseman Alex Goligoski, in reference to intense play down the stretch. “These games will be tight-checking and not a lot of rushes and rush plays either way. So, sure, there will be many games like that.”
For the Coyotes to be successful over the final weeks, they need to limit opposing opportunities and would be wise to take a page from the Oilers games. As well, coach Rick Tocchet began to match role players to the strength of opponents.
For success to come, pressure on top players of the opposition is critical. Against the Oilers, Tocchet put Brad Richardson in to shadow Connor McDavid and positioned Christian Dvorak to follow Leon Draisaitl. In that game, McDavid, who topped the Oilers in ice time, recorded only three shots on net while Draisaitl picked up four shots on net.
At the same time, the nature of team needs to be evident.
“When we simplify, we’re real dangerous,” Coyotes forward Derek Stepan said. “Starts with simple plays and going north with it quickly. That’s been the staple for us for a little while here. Our four lines are a big part of why we have been able to have success. If you want to be a playoff team, you have to make your building very difficult. We’ve done a good job of tilting our rink. We had a slower start to the season on home ice and I think we’ve done a really good job of making this a tough building for opponents.”
“We need consistency from everybody,” added Tocchet. “Every game is important. Any time you play anybody, you have to play consistent.”
Stepan photo/Norm Hall
— Mark Brown
(Feb. 25, 2020)