Ducks playoff bound, Coyotes lament slow start

Kelvin Kuo

GLENDALE, Ariz. — The Anaheim Ducks and Arizona Coyotes will end the NHL regular season the way they began it, by playing each other. What’s interesting is how that first game back on Oct. 5 set the stage for both teams’ seasons to follow.

The Coyotes, in their first game under new coach Rick Tocchet, led 4-1 at the Honda Center following Christian Fischer‘s goal at 13:50 of the second period, only to give up four consecutive Ducks goals and lose 5-4, with Rickard Rakell scoring the game-winning goal at 16:30 of the third period.

Arizona (29-40-12) went on to lose its next 10 games, going 0-10-1 to start the season, and never recovered despite a respectable second-half surge in which it has gone 20-13-7 this calendar year. The Coyotes still haven’t reached the postseason since 2011-12.

Anaheim (43-25-13) took that first game and built its sixth consecutive playoff season, with its opponent and its playoff seeding to be determined by its final regular-season game Saturday night at Gila River Arena.

The Ducks moved into third place in the Pacific Division, one point ahead of the Los Angeles Kings, by beating the Dallas Stars 5-3 Friday night behind right wing Jakob Silfverberg‘s goal and two assists.

They trail second-place San Jose by only one point, so if the Ducks beat Arizona and the Sharks lose Saturday to the Minnesota Wild, Anaheim will claim second place and home ice for the first round of the playoffs. However, should the Ducks lose and the Kings beat the Stars at the Staples Center, Anaheim would fall back to being a wild-card team.

“It’s a long season, and we worked hard to make it,” Ducks defenseman Francois Beauchemin said. “Now that we’ve made it, we need to take the next step and we’re going to need everybody going. … Everybody in here is hungry for more. Now we’ve got to take that next step.”

The Ducks will head into the postseason as one of those teams no opponent really wants to play. They’ve won four in a row and are 9-1-1 in their last 11 games, 16-5-2 in their last 23 games and 24-10-4 since their bye. They’re 2-1 against the Coyotes.

“We felt if we played the right way and gave ourselves a chance, this group was capable of putting together a longer string of wins and qualify for the playoffs,” coach Randy Carlyle said. “Now the goal changes.”

And it all began with that momentum-shifting win at the Honda Center six months ago.

That’s not to say the Coyotes will go into the offseason without any significant positives.

Goaltender Antti Raanta proved to be a true No. 1 goalie once he was fully healthy — he is 21-16-6 with a shiny 2.24 goals-against average — and was rewarded this week with a $12.75 million, three-year contract extension.

Reliable backup goalie Darcy Kuemper also is locked up for multiple seasons, giving the Coyotes strength at a position that was remarkably weak when Raanta was hurt at the start of the season – contributing to the terrible start.

Clayton Keller, the 19-year-old center, started strong with 11 goals in his first 16 games and is finishing strong, too, with five goals and 12 assists in his last 14 games – giving him 23 goals and 65 points for the season.

Center Derek Stepan (56 points) had a solid season in his first year with Arizona, especially from a leadership standpoint. Oliver Ekman-Larsson recovered from a slow start to have a typical season for one of the Western Conference’s best two-way defensemen.

Defenseman Kevin Connauton has scored 10 of his 11 goals since Feb. 1.

Still, the Coyotes’ 4-3 loss Thursday at Vancouver was another defeat that summed up their season, despite their 6-3-1 record in their last 10 games. They led 3-1 in the third period, but didn’t get a shot off the entire period and went on to lose in overtime on Daniel Sedin‘s second goal of the game, set up by brother Henrik in the soon-to-retire twins’ final game on home ice.

“I’m embarrassed for us we couldn’t get a shot on net,” Tocchet said. “A couple of guys showed up, but that was about it.”

Now, for the sixth consecutive season, the Coyotes won’t show up in the playoffs. And, for a sixth consecutive season, the Ducks will. And the roots of both streaks go back to that Oct. 5 game.