For most of the year, folks wondered if — or, when — the Arizona Coyotes would eventually fall out of playoff contention.
And now — as they’re about to embark on a five-game road swing through Washington, Tampa Bay, Florida, Philadelphia and Pittsburgh — the Coyotes are talking about it themselves.
“We’re looking at it as a huge part of the season,” Kevin Connauton said, per the Arizona Republic. “We gotta go on this road trip, and we gotta play some good hockey. We gotta grind out a couple of road wins because this is a key point in the season.
“This could really, at the end of the day, make or break things for us.”
The Coyotes are in a pretty curious spot.
Realistically, they’re probably not going to make the postseason. Heading into tonight’s game at Verizon, they’re five points back of the second wild card spot in the Western Conference, and would need to leapfrog Minnesota to get there.
But the fact Arizona’s in this conversation at all is surprising.
Picked by many to be one of the worst teams in the NHL, the Coyotes have impressed, thanks in large part to the outstanding play of rookies Max Domi and Anthony Duclair. Throw in some surprisingly good netminding from another rookie, Louis Domingue, and the usual solid contributions from blueliner Oliver Ekman-Larsson, and the Coyotes have put together what has to be seen as a successful campaign — playoffs or no.
Which is why, regardless of how this trip goes, the club’s immediate future might already be decided.
While GM Don Maloney said there won’t be a purge similar to last year, it’s likely that Arizona will be a seller at the Feb. 29 deadline. There’s been a ton of rumored interesting around pending UFA Mikkel Boedker, while veteran free agents like Nicklas Grossmann and Boyd Gordon could also be flipped for picks.
Add it all up, and Connauton was right — this road trip could make or break the Coyotes’ playoff chances.
Yet it’s entirely possible those chances won’t be broken by wins or losses.