What a difference a year makes for Coyotes, Golden Knights

GLENDALE, Ariz. — Now that the Vegas Golden Knights are well into their second NHL season, they’re finally starting to resemble an expansion team.

The Arizona Coyotes? Much like the Golden Knights, they don’t look anything like they did a season ago.

The Golden Knights and Coyotes meet for the first of four times this season on Wednesday at Gila River Arena, and the two desert rivals couldn’t be more dissimilar than they were in the 2017-18 season.

Then, in its first NHL season, Vegas won four of five from Arizona, two in overtime.

The Coyotes were 2-14-3 through 19 games a season ago; now they’re 9-9-1.

The Golden Knights, a surprise team from start to finish in an inaugural season in which they reached the Stanley Cup Final, were 15-6-1 through 22 games; now they’re 9-12-1 — and have the same number of points (19) as the Coyotes despite playing three more games.

“They’re not going to surprise people this season,” Arizona coach Rick Tocchet said Tuesday. “Everybody’s ready for them. Maybe there’s a little bit of the Stanley Cup Final hangover. But they’re still a hard-working team and they’ve got a lot of pieces.”

The two franchises illustrate how quickly poor teams can get better, and good teams can quickly fall off, in modern day American pro sports.

The teams’ last two games show that, too.

The Golden Knights breezed to a 6-3 win on Sunday at Edmonton, a Oilers loss that helped lead to the firing of coach Todd McLellan and Vegas’ second win in three games.

But the next night, they fell behind by seven goals in a 7-2 loss to the Calgary Flames on Monday.

“It’s hard to believe this happen the way we played (Sunday) night, but that’s hockey I guess,” Vegas coach Gerard Gallant said. “I’m pretty disappointed and I hope they (the players) are disappointed because they didn’t show up.”

They were.

“There’s too many games where that’s happened,” Vegas forward Reilly Smith said. And teammate Nick Holden said, “It was a lack of effort. … It looked like we were two steps behind. It can’t happen again.”

Now, the Golden Knights will play their third game in four nights during a challenging stretch in which they’ll play five games in seven days. They’ll get only Thursday off after the game against the Coyotes before playing another back-to-back, against Calgary and San Jose.

Arizona beat Nashville 2-1 on Thursday. But after beating the team that owns the NHL’s best record, the Coyotes turned around two nights later and wasted long stretches of dominance while losing 2-1 to the Boston Bruins in a game they outshot Boston 18-1 during a span of more than 30 minutes.

“I think there are some individuals who have to play better for us,” Tocchet told radio station KQFN. “We’re the type of team that can’t have four to five guys in each game playing below average. We’re the type of team that needs to have everyone play well and contribute.”

Despite putting together a five-game winning streak three weeks ago, the Coyotes have lost five of seven. Vegas has lost four of six.

One reason is goal scoring; through Tuesday games, Arizona was second-to-last in scoring with 48 goals (2.53 per game); Vegas was tied for 22nd in the 31-team NHL with 57 goals (2.59 per game).

Marc-Andre Fleury (9-8-1) is expected to be back in goal for Vegas after backup Malcolm Subban gave up seven goals on 32 shots in Calgary.

Goaltender Darcy Kuemper (4-5-1) is expected to make his eighth consecutive start for Arizona, although starter Antti Raanta (lower-body injury) could return for a Friday home game against the Colorado Avalanche.

The Coyotes, currently thin on the blue line, also could welcome back defensemen Alex Goligoski (lower body) and Jakob Chychrun (upper body) as early as Wednesday.

“We’re playing a lot of teams in our division (right) now. This is a big game for us,” Tocchet said. “It’s a proverbial four-point game. More than ever, we want to be a consistent team in division games.”