Upstart Coyotes brace for Capitals
GLENDALE, Ariz. — The Arizona Coyotes were coming off lopsided home-ice losses to Calgary (6-1) and Colorado (5-1) when general manager John Chayka, unable to wait any longer for more offense, went out and traded for forward Nick Schmaltz.
One game later, with the Coyotes down 3-1 to the Minnesota Wild going into the third period on the road, goaltender Antti Raanta left with a lower-body injury. With backup Darcy Kuemper already injured, coach Rick Tocchet was forced to insert the team’s AHL goalie, Adin Hill.
Remarkably, the Coyotes — on the verge of playing themselves out of contention only 10 days ago — haven’t lost since.
Arizona will take a four-game winning streak, some momentum and some growing confidence into its Thursday night game against the Stanley Cup champion Washington Capitals, who, only a few days ago, had all of the above and more.
But the Capitals have lost their last two following a seven-game winning streak and, in a 5-3 loss at the Vegas Golden Knights on Tuesday, may have lost top-line right wing Tom Wilson for a while with a head injury. Wilson, arguably the NHL’s most notorious hitter, was leveled by a blindside hit from Vegas forward Ryan Reaves so hard that it knocked Wilson’s helmet off.
The Capitals (15-9-3) didn’t practice Thursday in advance of the second game of a three-game road trip, a day off that gave them time to think about all they didn’t like about the loss in Las Vegas.
Namely, losing Wilson and allowing two goals by former Washington defenseman Nate Schmidt in the final two minutes of the game.
“Reaves targeted him (Wilson) the entire game,” Capitals coach Todd Rierden said. “You could hear it on every faceoff, you could hear the things that were being said. And it’s a blindside hit where an unsuspecting player hits his head on the ice. So that’s disappointing. You can put two and two together, but he targeted him the entire game.”
Washington already is without forward T.J. Oshie, who sustained the fifth concussion of his career against the Winnipeg Jets three weeks ago.
Hill, one of the NHL’s unlikeliest success stories this season, will make his fourth consecutive start on Thursday at Gila River Arena. He is 2-0 with an 0.56 goals-against average following the Coyotes’ 2-1 win at the Los Angeles Kings on Tuesday, when more than a handful of his 25 saves were difficult ones.
The Coyotes’ special teams produced both goals. Schmaltz scored his fourth of the season on the power play and forward Lawson Crouse scored the team’s league-leading 11th short-handed goal.
But it’s Hill that’s been truly special. And coach Rick Tocchet isn’t about to sit down a goaltender who has made 85 saves on 87 shots.
“He’s unflappable right now,” Tocchet said. “He’s feeling it, and it’s a nice story. … He’s come in and he’s put the plug in for us and he’s holding the fort. We’ll just keep going from there.”
The Coyotes thought Raanta might be ready by now, but he didn’t practice Wednesday and Tocchet said Hill would start again.
“It’s nice to know the staff here in Arizona has confidence in me, and I want to give them no reason not to,” Hill said.
Schmaltz, acquired from the Chicago Blackhawks, has given the Coyotes’ top line a much different look since Tocchet put him at center between Alex Galchenyuk and Clayton Keller before a 3-0 win at Nashville on Nov. 29. In the three games since, Keller and Schmaltz have two goals and three assists apiece and Galchenyuk has an assist.
“They’ve got some chemistry going,” Tocchet said. “And they’re going to get better. There’s another level between those guys.”
The Capitals and Coyotes split their two games last season, with each winning in overtime on their home ice. The Coyotes (13-11-2) already have won 13 games; they didn’t win their 13th game last season until Feb. 8.