The Arizona Coyotes are in a place in March that they have not been in a long time, battling for a playoff berth.
With six games remaining as of March 25, the Coyotes sit two points out of the final wild card berth with 79 points, tied with the Minnesota Wild. The Dallas Stars (82 points) and Colorado Avalanche (81) hold the two Western Conference Wild Card spots.
The Coyotes have matchups against Chicago (March 26), Colorado (March 29), Minnesota (March 31), Las Vegas (April 4) and Winnipeg (April 6) but may need help if they hope to qualify for the playoffs for the first time in six years.
Over the past five games, the Coyotes have struggled, losing five in a row to fall from the final playoff spot to three points out. But head coach Rick Tocchet sees support growing for his team.
“You especially want the fans to believe in what we’re doing,” Tocchet said after a recent home game. “We asked them last year through some tough times to stick with us. I think the fans are coming out and getting louder and louder. I think they understand that this team works hard. We’re starting to get results now, but things change quick. We’re not a rollercoaster team and we understand where we’re at, but it’s nice to have a lot of fans cheering.”
One of the biggest hurdles the Coyotes have had to overcome has been injuries. The team has lost over 350 man-games to injuries over the season.
Goaltender Antti Ranta (November 27), center Nick Schmaltz (December 31) and defenseman Kyle Capobianco (February 6) were all placed on injured reserve and Brad Richardson, Derek Stepan, Jakob Chychuran and Alex Galchenyuk are all among the players who have spent time injured this season.
The team has been led by Clayton Keller, who, in his second season, leads the team with 46 points (14 goals, 32 assists), and Oliver Ekman-Larsson (12 G, 28 A) to the team’s most wins since they won 37 in 2013-14.
Young players have been key to the team’s turnaround, with 23-year-old Connor Garland (12 G, 5 A) through 17 points blossoming into a strong player. He filled in strong during the team’s injuries.
Others who have stepped up have been Galchenyuk (17 G, 22 A), with 39 points; Vinnie Hinostroza (15 G, 19 A), who earned 34 points; Nick Cousins (6 G, 19 A), who hit 25 points; Lawson Crouse (11 G, 11 A), who received 22 points; and Chychuran (5 G, 15 A), at 20 points.
Goalkeeper Darcy Kuemper (24 wins, 19 losses, 7 overtime losses) has been strong in the net since Ranta’s injury. He has allowed 2.45 goals per game with a save percentage of 92.
Since the team has not appeared in the postseason since the 2011-12 season, it has shown the ability to make a run and get to the playoffs. The way this unit has played, with some strong runs and winnings streaks, the Coyotes are eager to make a return to the playoffs.
With an advertising tag that says the Coyotes are “scratching and clawing” for the playoffs, the team is focused on doing just that.
“That phrase, scratching and clawing, has resonated with the team and the whole market,” Arizona Coyotes CEO Ahron Cohen said recently. “That is what this team is all about. It’s resiliency and fighting for every inch as well as playing with a chip on their shoulders.”
Given the playoff drought, General Manager John Chayka knows the team is headed in the right direction, as well as growing the sport of hockey in the team’s 22nd in Arizona and 16th in Glendale.
“I look at from what it would mean for just growing the sport of hockey in Arizona,” Chayka said.
“Obviously, since we last made the playoffs, we have had (Arizona resident) Auston Matthews be a number one pick, and there has been a huge explosion in youth hockey since. Plus, a lot of those young players have never experienced a NHL playoff game.”
This season, the Coyotes seem to have found a way to win close games.
Over their final five games, they may need to win four of the five, which could lead to the first playoff games at Gila River Arena since 2012.