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Coyotes hanging around in playoff race even as injury list grows

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The Arizona Coyotes have every possible reason and every possible excuse to be out of contention for a playoff spot in the Western Conference.

Thanks to some strong defensive play, some good goaltending, and a lot of help from the teams around them they are most definitely not out of contention for a playoff spot.

About 10 days ago I took an in-depth look at insane Western Conference Wild Card race that has become a complete log-jam of, uh, let’s just call it mediocrity, with a bunch of teams all separated by a small handful of points.

At the time, there were seven teams separated by six points fighting for what would basically be three playoff spots (the third place spot in the Central Division and two Wild Card spots). One team I omitted from the discussion was the Arizona Coyotes. They were even further back than the rest of that group sitting seven points back of a playoff spot, with an extra game played than most of their competitors, and with five teams sitting between them and a playoff spot. They were only on a 78-point pace for the season and have been one of the hardest hit teams in the league this season for injuries.

It just seemed like a real long shot to even include them based on all of the variables working against them. It was easy to write them off.

In hindsight, at least for now, I seem to have underestimated two things.

First, just how historically weak the lower half of the Western Conference playoff race is where absolutely nobody has shown any ability to distance themselves from everybody else. In just about any other year a 78-point pace halfway through the season would be more than enough to bury a team and all but end their playoff hopes. Over in the Eastern Conference teams on a similar pace are currently sitting at least eight points back and probably preparing to go into sell-mode for the trade deadline. It’s almost as if some of the teams involved in the Western Conference are fighting to stay out of the playoffs as opposed to getting in the playoffs.

And second, I seem to have underestimated just how hard this Coyotes team has played under second-year coach Rick Tocchet and how quickly they have changed their season outlook to at least get back within striking distance of a potential playoff spot.

They are not just hanging around, they are now all of a sudden in the playoff race.

Entering the All-Star break the Coyotes find themselves with a 23-23-4 record, giving them 50 points in the standings. That leaves them only two points back of the current eighth-seeded Colorado Avalanche (with now only two teams between them). They have managed to gain that ground by going on a 6-2-2 run over their past eight games.

What stands out about this recent run is the fact they have not only done it by picking up points against some of the league’s elite teams (beating San Jose, getting a point against Pittsburgh in a game they easily could have won, winning in Toronto), they have done it with a roster that just been absolutely devastated by injuries all season. it only kept getting worse on Wednesday night when star defender Oliver Ekman-Larsson exited their game against the Montreal Canadiens with a lower-body injury.

He joins a list that now includes veteran forward Michael Grabner, defender Jason Demers, veteran forward and top penalty killer Brad Richardson, recent trade acquisition Nick Schmaltz, and perhaps most important of all, starting goalie Antti Raanta.

And that does not even include third-year forward Christian Dvorak who has not played in a game this season and may miss the season entirely or defender Jakob Chychrun who has missed a significant chunk of the season as well.

At the start of the season I had the Coyotes pegged as a team that could take a massive leap forward this season if a few things went in their favor, specifically as it related to offseason acquisition Alex Galchenyuk (who also missed 10 games earlier this season), the development of recent No. 3 overall pick Dylan Strome, and Raanta’s ability to stay healthy and play like he did when he was in the crease a year ago.

Some of that has worked and some of it hasn’t.

Galchenyuk has been fine once he returned to to the lineup, while Strome was traded to Chicago for Schmaltz. But Schmaltz was playing pretty well after the trade until he also recently joined the list of walking wounded. He is now done for the season.

Raanta is the one that seems like it should have been the crushing blow. When he was in the lineup last season he was good enough to allow the Coyotes to play at a pace that would have put them on the fringes of playoff contention over a full season, if not actually in a playoff spot. It was when he was out of the lineup due to injury, with no capable backup behind him, that the house of cards fell over.

That has not been the case this season where veteran backup Darcy Kuemper has done an outstanding job to keep the Coyotes in games and give them a chance on most nights, and especially throughout the month of January.

This is all encouraging, and should at least offer some hope that when this team has all of its pieces in place there could be something to build on here.

What’s discouraging is we will not see that this season because most of the players that are currently injured are done for a long time.

Schmaltz and Raanta are all done for the season. Dvorak might be done as well. Demers and Grabner are still sidelined for an undetermined amount of time and if Ekman-Larsson has to miss any games that will be a problem. For a team that was short on depth to begin with, especially offensively, that is a lot to overcome.

So far, thanks to some excellent goaltending recently and some stingy defense that has seen them be one of the best shot suppression teams in the league over the past 16 games (a stretch that has seen them go 9-5-2), they have managed to overcome it.

Whether or not it results in what would be a stunning playoff berth remains to be seen, but they have at least given themselves a chance to keep fighting for one this season.

MORE:
Arizona Coyotes place Antti Raanta on injured reserve
Nick Schmaltz done for season as Coyotes’ injury woes continue
How has Alex Galchenyuk fit in with Coyotes

Adam Gretz is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.

 

NHL All-Star Skills 2020: Barzal tops McDavid to win Fastest Skater

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ST. LOUIS — Mathew Barzal won the 2020 Fastest Skater competition with a time of 13.715 during the NHL All-Star Skills Competition Friday night. The Islanders forward ends Connor McDavid‘s three-year reign as champion.

Of the eight competitors, Barzal and McDavid were the last to go and each beat McDavid’s best time — 13.310 seconds — of the last three years.

Barzal finished third last year in San Jose with a time of 13.780. If he’s named to an All-Star roster next season he’ll be able to defend his crown at the BB&T Center when the Florida Panthers play host.

FINAL RESULTS
Mathew Barzal 13.175 (winner)

Connor McDavid 13.215
Chris Kreider 13.509
Jack Eichel 13.540
Nathan MacKinnon 13.895
Anthony Duclair 14.005
Travis Konecny 14.113
Quinn Hughes 14.263

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Sean Leahy is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @Sean_Leahy.

Bettman responds to IIHF president’s Olympic decision deadline

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The 2022 Beijing Olympics remains a hot topic between the NHL and NHLPA with the league seeing participation as disruptive and the players eager to represent their countries.

During his All-Star Weekend press conference, NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman said that while the league was comfortable with not going to Pyeongchang in 2018 he wouldn’t definitively shut the door on 2022.

“I can’t say that with certainty, not to give people false hope,” Bettman said. “I know the Players’ Association still maintains a strong preference for going. I know the IIHF still is focused on engaging with us and I think even wants to have a meeting at some point in the not too distant future. From our standpoint, we believe and our experience both with going to five Olympics and then not going to Pyeongchang tells us that going is extraordinarily disruptive to the season. I won’t take you through the litany of reasons why, you’ve all heard me say it. I know it maintains itself as a priority for the Players’ Association, but having said that we were very comfortable with not going Korea.”

IIHF president Rene Fasel said earlier this month that he’d like an answer from the NHL by August. Bettman isn’t ready to give him one any time soon.

“[Fasel] also said last summer he wanted an answer by December and he didn’t get one,” Bettman said. “We’re going to have to see. I actually think the deadline is really more one that we would have to impose, in terms of logistics. My guess is at a point in time we said we wanted to go and we could handle the timing of it, my guess is the IIHF could as well. That doesn’t mean that I don’t take Rene seriously, but as I said he already gave us one deadline and it came and went.”

Among the many logistics that need to be worked out if the NHL were to go includes the schedule, which is created well in advance of the season. When would Bettman see a potential deadline set by the league laid down? He isn’t sure.

“I don’t know. I’ll know it when I see it, when we get there,” he said. “Obviously, first and foremost, it has to do with releasing a schedule. That’s the game-changer one way or the other.”

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Sean Leahy is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @Sean_Leahy.

Florida Panthers to host 2021 NHL All-Star Game

2021 NHL All-Star Game
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NHL commissioner Gary Bettman announced on Friday that the NHL All-Star Game will be making its return to Florida next season when the Panthers play host to the 2021 game.

All-Star Weekend 2021 will take place at BB&T Arena on Jan. 29-30. Bettman hinted during his Friday press conference that the event may have an “international flavor” to it. Talks with the NHLPA are still on-going.

It will be Florida’s second time hosting the All-Star weekend after previously hosting it during the 2002-03 season.

That game was notable for a couple of reasons.

For one, it was the first time an NHL All-Star Game (or any NHL game for that matter) was decided by a shootout with the Western Conference winning by a 6-5 score. It was a sign of things to come as the league would eventually transition to that tie-breaking procedure for the start of the 2005-06 season.

Atlanta Thrashers forward Dany Heatley scored four times and was named MVP.

It was also the year that Panthers defenseman Sandis Ozolinsh, voted into the game as a starter, was traded by the host team just two days before the All-Star Game. While he played in the game, he did not participate in the Skills Competition because he did not want to wear the jersey of a team (the Panthers) he no longer played for. You can read all about that entire series of events in this previous PHT Time Machine. Ozolinsh was one of two Panthers in that game, joining Olli Jokinen.

Adam Gretz is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.

Crosby, Kane, Ovechkin highlight NHL’s All-Decade Team

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As part of All-Star weekend festivities, the NHL has announced its All-Decade Team, featuring many names you’d expect to see on such a list. Sidney Crosby, Alex Ovechkin, Patrick Kane lead the forward group on the First Team, with Duncan Keith and Drew Doughty on the blue line and Marc-Andre Fleury in goal.

The Second Team features Evgeni Malkin, Patrice Bergeron, and Steven Stamkos up front, Erik Karlsson and Zdeno Chara on defense, and Henrik Lundqvist in net.

Per the NHL, the two teams were selected by a panel of NHL general managers, NHL hockey operations staff, NHL.com writers and on-air talent from NBC, Sportsnet and TVAS.

FIRST TEAM

F Sidney Crosby, Penguins – 299 goals, 796 points, 635 games played, two Stanley Cups, two Conn Smythe Trophies, one Hart Trophy, five-time NHL All-Star, one Art Ross Trophy, two Rocket Richard Trophy, two Ted Lindsay Awards, three-time First Team NHL All-Star, two Olympic gold medals, one World Championship gold medal.

F Alex Ovechkin, Capitals – 447 goals, 791 points, 777 games played, one Stanley Cup, one Conn Smythe Trophy, three Hart Trophies, one Art Ross Trophy, three Pearson/Ted Lindsay Award, six Rocket Richard Trophies, eight-time NHL All-Star, four-time First Team NHL All-Star, two World Championship gold medals.

F Patrick Kane, Blackhawks – 318 goals, 814 points, 752 games played, three Stanley Cups, one Conn Smythe Trophy, three-time First Team NHL All-Star, eight-time NHL All-Star, one Art Ross Trophy, one Ted Lindsay Award, one Hart Trophy.

D Duncan Keith, Blackhawks – 62 goals, 434 points, 757 games played, three-time NHL All-Star, one First Team NHL All-Star, two Norris Trophies, one Conn Smythe Trophy, three Stanley Cups, two Olympic gold medals.

D Drew Doughty, Kings – 101 goals, 440 points, 780 games played, two Stanley Cups, one Norris Trophy, two-time First Team NHL All-Star, five-time NHL All-Star.

G Marc-Andre Fleury, Penguins/Golden Knights – 325 wins, .9167 save percentage, 2.45 goals against average, 43 shutouts, three Stanley Cups, five-time NHL All-Star, one Olympic gold medal.

SECOND TEAM

F Evgeni Malkin, Penguins – 278 goals, 710 points, 613 points, two Stanley Cups, one Art Ross Trophy, one Hart Trophy, one Ted Lindsay, one First Team NHL All-Star, five-time NHL All-Star.

F Steven Stamkos, Lightning – 367 goals, 731 points, 672 games played, two Rocket Richard Trophies, six-time All-Star.

F Patrice Bergeron, Bruins – 251 goals, 596 points, 728 games played, one Stanley Cup, four Selke Trophies, one King Clancy Trophy, two-time NHL All-Star, two Olympic gold medals, one World Cup of Hockey gold medal.

D Erik Karlsson, Senators/Sharks – 133 goals, 593 points, 705 games played, six-time NHL All-Star, two Norris Trophies, four-time First Team NHL All-Star.

D Zdeno Chara, Bruins – 98 goals, 312 points, 728 games played, two-time NHL All-Star, one Stanley Cup, one First Team NHL All-Star, three Norris Trophies.

G Henrik Lundqvist, Rangers – 299 wins, .919 save percentage, 2.49 goals against average, 42 shutouts, one Vezina Trophy, one First Team NHL All-Star, four-time NHL All-Star.

The NHL already announced winners of eight others All-Decade categories in the build up to the reveal of the All-Decade team.

Save of the Decade: Braden Holtby on Alex Tuch during the 2018 Stanley Cup Final
Coach of the Decade: Joel Quenneville, Blackhawks
Franchise of the Decade: Blackhawks
Playoff Series of the Decade: Kings-Blackhawks, 2014 Western Conference Final
Game of the Decade: Bruins-Maple Leafs, 2013 Round 1, Game 7
Event of the Decade: 2014 Winter Classic at Michigan Stadium
Moment of the Decade: 100 Greatest Players Gala, 2017
Goal of the Decade: Patrick Kane’s Stanley Cup winner in Game 6 of the 2010 Final

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Sean Leahy is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @Sean_Leahy.