GLENDALE, Ariz. — The Arizona Coyotes won’t be playing beyond a month from now, even if they’re performing down the stretch like a playoff team should. Eleven losses in their first 11 games sealed that postseason fate.
But the Coyotes are gaining something other than the playoffs under coach Rick Tocchet as other NHL franchises begin planning to take their runs at the Stanley Cup: Respectability.
That might sound like a cliche but, as the Coyotes wrap up a seven-game homestand by playing the Ottawa Senators on Saturday night, they were anything but respectable in the first half of the season. They were 0-10-1, 2-15-3 and 6-18-4 early on, and they were on track in late December for one of the worst NHL seasons in decades.
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But these Coyotes have won four of six on the homestand and seven of their last 10, and they’re a respectable — there’s that word again — 10-7-5 since the start of the new year. It’s a not playoff-worthy record, but it’s worthy of attention around the NHL.
“I like the way the team is practicing and I like the way the team is playing,” Tocchet said following a 5-3 win over Minnesota on Thursday that stopped the Wild’s five-game winning streak. “We’re starting to get results.”
As the Wild noticed while Arizona was scoring four goals in a turnaround third period.
“Their record is pretty deceiving,” Minnesota forward Zach Parise said. “They had a pretty slow start to the year, couldn’t get a win for a while, but they’ve been winning lately, they’ve been beating some really good teams.”
The Senators aren’t a very good team right now, despite pushing eventual Stanley Cup champion Pittsburgh to overtime of Game 7 of the Eastern Conference finals last season — and beating the Pacific Division-leading Golden Knights 5-4 in Las Vegas on Friday night.
Ottawa (22-31-10) had lost five in a row before surprising the Golden Knights on Alexandre Burrows‘ tiebreaking goal at 8:51 of the third period. They’ve lost seven of 11, and they’re only three wins up on the Coyotes (19-34-10) despite Arizona’s bad start to the season. Only the Coyotes (48) and Buffalo Sabres (51) have fewer points than Ottawa (54) does.
But just as Tocchet’s goal for the Coyotes is to get better and better during the final month of the season, coach Guy Boucher has expectations for his Senators, too.
“The long-term goal is to continue building and improve in different facets of the game,” Boucher said, outlining seemingly modest goals for a team that came ever-so-close to the Stanley Cup finals last season. “We’ve been injecting different guys into the lineup, trying different guys and looking at the future for a while now.”
The teams played once before this season, a 3-2 overtime victory by Arizona on Nov. 18 in Ottawa that came during the Coyotes’ first three-game winning streak of the season. They recently topped that with a four-game winning streak.
Regardless of the Senators’ record and recent lack of success, Tocchet said, “You’ve got to remember they were one goal from going to the Stanley Cup finals last year. They don’t exactly have the same team, but they still have a lot of pieces there.”
Even though newly acquired goaltender Darcy Kuemper signed a two-year contract after the Kings traded him to Arizona, he’s played only one game for the Coyotes and Tocchet plans to start regular goalie Antti Raanta (14-15-6) against the Senators. Ottawa will go with backup Mike Condon (4-11) since starter Craig Anderson won at Vegas, stopping 25 of 29 shots.
Ottawa will be trying to slow Coyotes defenseman Kevin Connauton, who scored the game-winning goal against Minnesota and now has six of his seven goals for the season since Feb. 1.