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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.

 

Sharks’ Erik Karlsson to return after missing nine games

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The San Jose Sharks have been one of the most dominant teams in the league over the past two months and will be getting even more good news on Saturday night when defender Erik Karlsson makes his return to the lineup after missing the team’s past nine games.

Karlsson last appeared in a game for the Sharks on Jan. 16 and had playing some of his best hockey of the season prior to the injury, recording 28 points over the previous 20 games.

It took him a while for his offensive production to get back to his normal career level, but Karlsson has been an impact player all season after arriving in an offseason trade with the Ottawa Senators. Among defenders that have logged at least 500 minutes of 5-on-5 ice-time this season, Karlsson is in the top-five in both on-ice shot attempt differential and scoring chance differential.

His 43 total points are also among the top-10 even though he has, again, missed the past nine games.

So, yeah, he has been pretty outstanding no matter metric you want to look at.

The Sharks still managed to go 6-3-0 without him during that stretch and enter Saturday’s game having won six of their past seven games, a pretty strong statement on the overall quality of the team and the depth they have assembled. They are one of the NHL’s best teams, a true Stanley Cup contender, and now they are getting one of the best players in the league back.

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.

Skinner focused on present in Buffalo rather than future

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By John Wawrow (AP Sports Writer)

BUFFALO, N.Y. (AP) — Jeff Skinner knows how much the Sabres and their playoff-starved fans want him to stay in Buffalo beyond this season.

”Ha, ha, I’ve heard,” the forward memorably said with a laugh in December. ”I’m having a lot of fun, too.”

And yet, two months later, Skinner is nowhere closer to providing anything resembling a definitive answer regarding where he’ll be playing once his contract expires after this season.

”The present is still where we are, and that sort of thing will play itself out,” he said Thursday. ”I think there’s no point in really talking about it now because there’s nothing really to talk about from me on my end.”

Skinner, however, can’t hide his emotions when asked how much he enjoys Buffalo.

His eyes brighten and he breaks into wide, toothy smile in saying: ”I like it here. Yeah, I like it.”

Cast off by Carolina as part of the Hurricanes’ latest rebuilding plan, the three-time 30-goal-scorer and 2011 NHL rookie of the year is approaching career-best numbers since being traded to the Sabres in August.

He has a team-leading 34 goals – three short of matching a career high – and is second in the NHL behind Washington’s Alexander Ovechkin (38). His seven game-winning goals are second in the NHL and most in Buffalo since Derek Roy had nine in 2008-09. Skinner has been so consistent, his longest goals drought was four games to start the season.

And he and captain Jack Eichel have been inseparable on a top line that’s played a significant role in keeping Buffalo in playoff contention in a bid to end a seven-year postseason drought, and on a team that finished last in the overall standings in three of the previous five years.

Despite going 11-15-5 since a 10-game win streak in November, the Sabres (28-21-7) already have 63 points – one more than they had last season – and sit 10th in the Eastern Conference, four points behind eighth-place Pittsburgh.

The topic of Skinner’s future is once again rising to the forefront with the NHL’s trade deadline looming on Feb. 25, and after Skinner was spotted having a lengthy conversation with his agent, Don Meehan, following a 3-1 win over the New York Islanders on Tuesday.

”To me it was just checking in,” Skinner said, referring to the meeting. ”No details to discuss. Nothing really to report.”

As for the approaching trade deadline, Skinner shrugged and said: ”I don’t think about it at all.”

It remains unlikely the Sabres will consider trading Skinner by Feb. 25.

General manger Jason Botterill told The Associated Press in December he didn’t consider that date as being a deadline for contract talks. And there has been no indication – publicly or privately – that Botterill’s stance has changed since.

Botterill has maintained regular contact with Meehan, and has said he wants Skinner to focus on playing and familiarizing himself with his new surroundings. What bolsters Botterill’s hopes is noting how Skinner chose to play in Buffalo by waiving his no-trade clause in a deal the Hurricanes acquired prospect forward Cliff Pu and three draft picks.

Eichel laughed when asked if he’s aware of Sabres fans campaigning for Skinner to stay.

”He has how many goals, 34?” Eichel said. ”I’m sure Sabres fans want him to stay. I mean, would they want him to leave?”

Eichel’s certainly on board, too.

”I’m not Skins’ agent. I’m not our GM, but he’s been a big part of our team this year,” he said. ”You could probably say we wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t for him.”

It will ultimately be up to Skinner to decide.

One positive is how much the Toronto-born player has enjoyed playing closer to home, and having his family attend games in Buffalo (essentially a two-hour drive) as opposed to Raleigh, North Carolina (roughly a two-hour flight).

Coach Phil Housley noted Skinner’s proximity to home and family has provided incentive. And it helps playing alongside Eichel.

”Jeff finds that open area, he’s a positional player, and Jack seems to find him in those areas,” Housley said. ”They just seem to have a great chemistry together.”

Skinner must also weigh what offers he might command in free agency at a time more teams are spending less in free agency and committing more salary cap-space to re-signing their own players.

All that can wait.

”As a player, you can only sort of control a small number of things,” Skinner said. ”For us right now, that’s moving on to tomorrow’s game and getting ready for that.”

More AP NHL: http://www.apnews.com/NHL and http://www.twitter.com/AP-Sports

Sam Gagner headed back to Oilers after trade with Canucks

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The Edmonton Oilers continued shaking up their roster by shipping Ryan Spooner to the Vancouver Canucks for Sam Gagner.

A day after moving Cam Talbot to the Philadelphia Flyers for Anthony Stolarz, the Oilers made the one-for-one swap hoping  the 29-year-old Gagner can rekindle his scoring touch from his early days in Edmonton.

Gagner spent the first seven seasons of his NHL with the Oilers where he posted five consecutive 40-point seasons to start his career and was a big contributor on the power play. He did hit 18 goals and 50 points two years ago in Columbus, but was slowly phased out after moving on to th Canucks last season. He’s only played seven games in Vancouver this season, spending most of his time on loan to the AHL Toronto Marlies where he scored 12 goals and recorded 37 points in 45 games. The team is hoping to get him to Brooklyn in time for Saturday night’s game against the Islanders.

Spooner’s travels continue as he’s now joins his third NHL team of the season. After signing a two-year deal with the New York Rangers in the summer, they then shipped him to the Oilers for Ryan Strome in November. (The Rangers retained $900K of Spooner’s salary in the deal.)

It’s one of those “change of scenery” deals we see often in the NHL. In this case, the scenery is familar for Gagner and the Oilers are hoping he can be a beneficial presence as they try to salvage the mess that is this season.

MORE: PHT NHL Trade Tracker

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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.

What’s better than a goalie goal? A double OT goalie goal

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Everyone loves a goalie goal — a true goalie goal. Not one of those bad passes that turns into a goal and the netminder gets credit because they touched it last.

Goaltender Anthony Hurtubise scored a goal Friday night for his St. Thomas Stars of the Greater Ontario Junior Hockey League. But it wasn’t just any goalie goal. The 20-year-old scored his in double overtime. Yes, double overtime. It was the only tally in the 1-0 win over the Komoka Kings.

Here’s Hurtubise describing how it went down inside the Joe Thornton Community Centre via Instagram:

We were tied 0-0 with about a minute and a half left in the second over time (3 on 3, if no one scores it’s a tie game, each team gets a point). Other team pulled their goalie to try and get two points as there are only a few games left before playoffs. I saw the goalie go to the bench while they were on the rush, made a glove save and took my shot.

(Komoka has already secured a playoff spot but clearly were trying to make up ground on fifth-place LaSalle.)

And not only did Hurtubise score the game-winning overtime goal, he also stopped 27 shots to record a shutout. Pretty nice way to spend a Friday night.

Stick-tap Chris Peters

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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.