GLENDALE, Ariz. (AP) — The Arizona Coyotes lost four of their first five games, three by shutout.
Another lost season in the desert apparently on the way.
The thing about those early games, though, is they were close, unlike the start of last season. The Coyotes played well, just couldn’t seem to catch the right break or get pucks to find the net.
Once the pucks started going in, the Coyotes couldn’t seem to miss.
Behind a scoring flurry that would have been unthinkable on previous teams, Arizona is off to its best 11-game start (6-5-0) since 2013-14.
”I really like all our games; we played well in all of them, we competed well,” Coyotes forward Derek Stepan said. ”Yeah, we made some mistakes that cost us some goals early on, but we’re learning quickly.”
It’s been a long-arching curve.
The Coyotes have struggled since reaching the 2012 Western Conference finals, seeming to be in perpetual rebuilding mode. Arizona got last season off to a miserable start, needing 12 games to win for the first time to fall out of playoff contention before the season’s first month was over.
The Coyotes played better the last two months of the 2017-18 season and hoped it would carry over into this season.
It did not, at least early.
Arizona opened the season with a pair of shutout losses and had four goals its first five games – three of those in its lone win.
Then something clicked.
The Coyotes beat the Chicago Blackhawks 4-1 on the road on Oct. 18 and, after a 5-3 loss at Winnipeg, have been one of the NHL’s hottest teams.
With Tuesday night’s 5-1 home win over Ottawa, the Coyotes have outscored opponents 20-4 during a four-game winning streak. Arizona has 27 goals over a six-game span, a first for the franchise since 2006-07.
”The guys were sticking with it and practicing like the goals would come,” Coyotes coach Rick Tocchet said. ”You have to have that mentality in this league. We’ve got good mojo right now and we don’t want to wreck it.”
Arizona has been among the league leaders in shots per game since the start of the season and the shooting percentage has dramatically increased since the minuscule 1.6 to start the season.
The Coyotes seemed to get some bad breaks on shots early in the season, hitting posts and crossbars, having pucks squirt out of their reach in the offensive zone. They also didn’t seem to create their own luck by getting traffic in front of the crease and putting shots in spots where goalies could make easy saves.
The breaks have been coming the past few games, such as Stepan’s blue line, short-handed goal that skittered off the ice and through Ottawa goalie Mike Condon‘s pads .
Arizona also has been creating some of that luck with hard, smart play, getting traffic in front of opposing goaltenders and more precise shooting.
”You earn your bounces,” Stepan said. ”We had some bounces going the other way early on in the year, now they’re starting to go our way and in a few weeks, they’re going to come back the other way. Good teams find ways to win any given night regardless of the bounces.”
With the scoring boost, the Coyotes have continued to play stingy defense, the one area that helped them get through the difficult times in the past.
Arizona has limited good chances against and its goalies, Antti Raanta and Darcy Kuemper, have been superb, combining to give the Coyotes the NHL’s best goals-against average at 1.91. Raanta, healthy after an injury-filled first season in the desert, is fourth in the NHL with a 1.99 goals-against average.
The Coyotes also have the NHL’s second-best penalty kill at 90.6 percent and have a league-high six short-handed goals to three power-play goals allowed. Stepan’s goal against Ottawa gave Arizona short-handed goals in three straight games for the second time in franchise history (1985). The Coyotes are 11th NHL team since 1933 to have five short-handed goals in three games.
”When we’re sticking with our game plan and everybody is dialed in, we’re a really good team,” Raanta said. ”As a goalie, it’s a dream to play behind that team.”
Especially when they’re scoring goals, as they are now.