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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.

 

The Playoff Buzzer: Stars dump Predators; Hurricanes push Caps to Game 7

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  • The Stars eliminated the Predators from the 2019 Stanley Cup Playoffs, thus Dallas will move on to face the Blues as the first official Round 2 matchup. It wasn’t easy for Dallas in Game 6, though.
  • A back-and-forth game ended with some controversy, but however you feel about a disallowed goal, the Hurricanes beat the Capitals, thus forcing the third and final Game 7 of Round 1.

Hurricanes 5, Capitals 2 (Series tied 3-3, Game 7 Airs on NBCSN; Stream here)

From the score, you might not believe that this was a close game, one that ended in some controversy. It was, though, as the Capitals saw a would-be 3-3 goal disallowed. Not long after that, Justin Williams scored a 4-2 insurance tally, and an empty-netter made it 5-2. This was a well-played contest overall, with Carolina fighting back from deficits of 1-0 and 2-1 to eventually win. Alex Ovechkin was prominently involved, including doing a chicken taunt, and then getting kicked out late in the contest while he was enraged about the nongoal.

Stars 2, Predators 1 [OT] (Dallas wins series 4-2, will face St. Louis Blues in Round 2.)

For much of that Round 1 series, the two teams were keeping scoring chances down, and the goalies were stopping almost everything — with a few hiccups. Game 6 was different, as this was a hectic, exciting game with plenty of scoring chances. There were plenty of near-misses, and eventually the Stars got the best of the Predators when John Klingberg scored the OT game-winner. The Central Division champion is out, and now it will be Stars vs. Blues.

By the standards of the 2019 Stanley Cup Playoffs, this really isn’t an upset … maybe it would be during a normal postseason, though?

[NBC 2019 STANLEY CUP PLAYOFF HUB]

Three Stars

1. Ben Bishop

Both goalies were sharp in what should have been a high-scoring Game 6 between the Stars and Predators, where both netminders needed to make their fair share of point-blank saves. Bishop was tested several times in high-difficulty, high-danger situations, with only Austin Watson‘s goal getting through.

Overall, Bishop finished Game 6 stopping 47 out of 48 shots to help the Stars advance.

Bishop set a high standard for himself during the 2018-19 regular season, particularly down the stretch. Remarkably, he’s performed at that same level during most of the postseason so far, setting the stage for what could be an unexpected goalie duel against Jordan Binnington.

2. Jordan Staal

The Hurricanes needed a team effort to hang with the Capitals and force a Game 7. Justin Williams continues to be a great big-game performer, delivering big hits (including one accidental collision with his own goalie, Petr Mrazek, unfortunately), a key insurance goal, and also a would-be goal that didn’t count because he batted the puck down with a high stick. Dougie Hamilton enjoyed some retribution with an assist and an empty-net goal.

But Staal had arguably the biggest impact. He scored the game-winner on a high-effort play, and Staal also collected an assist on Williams’ important 4-2 tally to make a Capitals comeback unlikely. Staal finished the game +2 and with five hits, so it was a busy night for the underrated two-way center.

3. Pekka Rinne

It probably won’t provide much solace for Rinne, but he enjoyed a strong final performance of 2018-19.

Rinne stopped 49 out of 51 shots on goal in Game 6, giving the Predators a chance to win. Game 6 could have been a monster output for Jamie Benn, what with the power forward firing eight shots on goal, but he finished with zero points largely because of how strong Rinne was. Honestly, Nashville’s defense really failed to find answers for Dallas’ top line other than “Let Pekka make the saves,” and that worked about as well as it could have. It didn’t work well enough for the Predators to force a Game 7, however, so now they must ponder how to remain contenders after another painful playoff finish.

Factoids

  • Justin Williams cringes at “Mr. Game 7,” so maybe we should call him “The Eliminator?” With a goal in Game 6, Williams now has 27 points in 23 games where his teams have faced elimination. His 1.17 points-per-game in those situations ranks as the second-best among active players, behind Patrick Kane‘s 1.26 average.
  • Jordan Staal’s eventual game-winner ranks as the first lead change of the Hurricanes – Capitals series.
  • Hockey fans are spoiled: this is the first time we’ve had three Game 7 matchups in the first round since 2014, according to Sportsnet.

Two Game 7’s on Tuesday!

Game 7: Maple Leafs at Bruins (7 p.m. ET; NBCSN, live stream)
Game 7: Vegas Golden Knights at San Jose Sharks (10 p.m. ET; NBCSN; Live stream)

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

Stars eliminate Predators in overtime thriller

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The Dallas Stars eliminated the Nashville Predators, and thus, we have the first official Round 2 match of the 2019 Stanley Cup Playoffs as the Stars will take on the St. Louis Blues. The Stars moved on to Round 2 by beating the Predators 2-1 in an OT thriller, winning the series 4-2.

For much of 2018-19 (heck, even much of the off-season), it seemed like the Predators and Winnipeg Jets were headed for another series. Nope. Instead, the two lower seeds in the Central Division will square off, and the remarkable thing is that both the Stars and Blues earned it.

Much like other series in this surprising summer of playoff series, the underdogs didn’t win based on goaltending alone. The Stars were impressive in most facets of the game in Round 1, and the stage is set for what could be quite the fascinating bout with the Blues.

But first, the clincher

Game 6 was a low-scoring affair, and while some of that came down to sharp work from Ben Bishop and Pekka Rinne, this wasn’t the slow, plodding contest. The Stars and Predators came so close on plenty of chances, whether it was Kyle Turris barely missing the net on a 2-on-1 opportunity, or Esa Lindell‘s attempt catching a post.

Bishop finished with 47 saves, and Rinne made 49. John Klingberg ended up scoring the overtime-winner as the Stars pressed their territorial advantage in OT.

Just about every team that loses a playoff series faces “What if?” questions, and soul-searching about what to fix. For Nashville, the power play is the elephant in the room, and it came trudging in during a pivotal moment of what would be their final game of 2018-19.

In a moment that almost seemed to be scripted out of Hollywood, the pathetically putrid Predators power play received an opportunity to win Game 6 with a man advantage opportunity with 1:53 remaining in regulation. The Predators failed to convert, pushing Nashville to 0-for-4 in Game 6, and 0-for-15 during this series. They wouldn’t end up getting another chance, and you’d have to think the Predators will enter the off-season hoping to address these issues — whether it means changing coaches, personnel, or both.

The Stars and Predators put on a show, but ultimately Dallas came out on top. Hockey fans will have to settle for three Game 7’s to close out Round 1, rather than four.

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

Controversy swirls as Hurricanes force Game 7 vs. Capitals

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After Game 5, people wondered what Dougie Hamilton was thinking. Game 6 involved a similar question, but this time the hockey world questioned what the officials were thinking.

The Carolina Hurricanes did a tremendous job battling back from 1-0 and 2-1 deficits in Game 6, ultimately winning 5-2. But, no doubt about it, a disallowed 3-3 goal for the Washington Capitals will hover over this game.

Moments after a 3-3 tie instead moved back to a 3-2 lead for the Hurricanes, Justin Williams put the contest out of reach with a 4-2 goal, then Dougie Hamilton got the next laugh with an empty-netter. The two teams will meet in a Game 7 to decide which team will move on to face the New York Islanders.

Judge that call for yourself, even if it ultimately didn’t stand:

One interesting element is the league’s explanation for the non-goal. Many wondered if this was an “intent to blow” the whistle situation where an official lost sight of the puck, yet the NHL’s Situation Room explained that it was determined that Alex Ovechkin interfered with Petr Mrazek‘s attempt to make a stop.

Ovechkin went from mocking Hamilton with a “chicken” gesture to being tossed from Game 6 after losing his cool (and giving it to the officials) late in the contest.

However you feel about the debated would-be 3-3 goal, it’s possible that the Hurricanes might have forced a Game 7, anyway. Overall, it was an exciting, well-played Game 6, with the teams following scripts we expected going into Round 1. Carolina generally dominated “quantity” in scoring chances and shot attempts, yet the Capitals sometimes had the edge from a “quality” standpoint.

Carolina kept fighting back in Game 6, as the Hurricanes have during this series, and Jordan Staal‘s eventual game-winner captured that scrappy spirit.

While this series has been a mix of nail-biters and blowouts, it just feels right that this one’s going to Game 7, even if the Capitals probably aren’t happy with how it got there.

Hurricanes – Capitals Game 7 takes place at Capital One Arena on Wednesday. (Stream here)

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

Ovechkin mocks Hamilton, Hurricanes with chicken gesture

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Did Dougie Hamilton “bail out” on a would-be Alex Ovechkin check, thus letting Ovechkin retrieve the puck for a dagger 3-0 goal in Game 5? Was it a mental mistake by Hamilton, which would still be a gaffe, but not bring into questions of “toughness?”

Whatever the true answer might be, that moment reverberated through the Capitals – Hurricanes Round 1 series, and was referenced early in Game 6 on Monday (currently airing on NBCSN; Stream here). After Ovechkin missed a check on Hamilton, Ovechkin did a “chicken flapping its wings” motion at Hamilton and/or the Hurricanes bench.

You can watch the mocking gesture in the video above this post’s headline, and judge for yourself on that 3-0 goal from the Capitals’ eventual 6-0 win in Game 5 in this clip. Jeremy Roenick provided his take, too.

(Personally, I think Hamilton was confused, not frightened, but perhaps we’ll never truly know.)

Ovechkin’s not shy about trash talk, including in the playoffs – you may remember him jawing at Henrik Lundqvist in 2015 – and the Hurricanes must respond on the scoreboard. Alex Ovechkin let his play do some talking along with that taunting, as he scored a 2-1 goal for a Capitals lead moments after Petr Mrazek was bumped hard in an accidental collision by his own teammate, Justin Williams.

Tune into Game 6 on NBCSN and/or stream it here to see the taunting, heavy-hitting, and tense action.

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.