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Kuemper’s outstanding 2019 is driving Coyotes’ playoff push

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Plenty has been written about the resiliency the Arizona Coyotes have shown in fighting through injuries during their stunning ascent into what’s currently a spot in the 2019 Stanley Cup Playoffs.

That’s been the case at PHT, for sure, as Sean Leahy’s been able to go in-depth with both coach Rick Tocchet and GM John Chayka regarding those challenges. It’s understandable, as Tocchet described the Coyotes’ rash of injuries as something he’s never seen during his “30-something years” in the NHL.

But, to me, the true story of the Coyotes’ rise comes down to one goalie: Darcy Kuemper.

Kuemper clearly made some New Year’s resolutions

Since Feb. 19, the Coyotes’ 20 points leads all NHL teams, yet they’ve been outshot 401-357 during that same time. They’ve generally been a bottom-third team from a possession stats standpoint this season, and they actually slipped further during this 10-2-0 run.

While the Coyotes have done a better job of winning the high-danger scoring chance battle than they have the overall shot share struggle, Kuemper’s still far-and-away the difference.

During this run, Kuemper’s 10 wins tower over the pack, as the closest since Feb. 19 are a handful of goalies with seven victories. His .943 save percentage sparkles, too.

However, there might be a reflex to wave that off as a matter of small sample sizes. Interestingly, it really seems as though Kuemper became a new goalie once the calendar hit 2019.

Since Jan. 1, Kuemper’s topped all goalies with 19 wins, and he’s collected a stellar .930 save percentage over 27 games played. That’s a resounding turnaround for a goalie whose save percentage was under .900 between November and December.

Kuemper’s pivotal work wasn’t lost on Chayka, as he praised the goalie during that March 8 PHT interview.

“This is the story of our season,” Chayka said. “A guy gets an opportunity they might not of otherwise had with some of the injuries and he steps up and elevates his game. He’s been a big story for us. He’s been a rock for us back there. He gives the guys a lot of confidence and allows them to go and play their game …”

When it was clear by December that Antti Raanta would be out for most, if not all, of the 2018-19 season, I plainly wondered if the Coyotes had any hope of making a playoff push.

There was a feeling of sadness there, as Chayka seemed to identify Raanta as a goalie with high-end starter talent, but maybe not the body (or at least the health luck) to withstand such a workload. Kuemper’s run argues that Chayka actually identified two difference-makers in net.

Who has been scoring?

Kuemper stands as Exhibits A through Z on why the Coyotes are enjoying this meteoric rise, but let’s ponder a few other factors.

Interestingly, there’s only one Coyotes skater who’s been a point-per-game player during this 10-2-0 run over 12 games. With Thursday’s natural hat trick, Vinnie Hinostroza now has 12 points in as many games. Oliver Ekman-Larsson is the only other player with double-digits points during that span with 10.

You’d think that Clayton Keller (seven points) and Alex Galchenyuk (four) would have been bigger parts of this jump up the standings, but the Coyotes have instead been scoring by committee … and, of course, mainly keeping other teams from scoring. They only allowed 25 goals during this stretch, just a touch over two goals per game.

(Blurts out Kuemper.)

Interesting tests ahead

While the Coyotes began to heat up during a three-game road trip (losing in Calgary on Feb. 18, then beginning to catch steam with two away victories), they’ve generally played quite a bit at home. The Coyotes went 6-1-0 during a seven-game homestand from Feb. 24 – March 9, forming a big part of this hot streak.

It should be interesting, then, to see how they handle a mixed bag remaining schedule.

On one hand, the slate features quite a few games against non-playoff teams. That’s especially true if the Blackhawks feel less spry by March 26, and the Avalanche find themselves far out of the mix by March 29.

Regardless, after Saturday’s home game against the Oilers, face a four-game road trip, and play five of six away from Glendale from March 21-29.

That’s not the sort of stretch that automatically spells doom, yet it might serve as a challenge for a team that’s sometimes winning by thin margins. (Then again, their last two wins were by 6-1 and 3-1, so maybe they’re heating up on offense, too?)

***

Pointing out how Kuemper-driven Arizona’s run has been isn’t meant to condemn the Coyotes’ efforts. Considering all of their injuries, how else would you realistically expect a team that’s not exactly star-studded to win games?

The Coyotes have built themselves a bit of a buffer ahead of bubble teams like the Wild (get the lowdown at Push for the Playoffs), to the point that they have a strong chance of holding onto a spot.

If they pull this off, Kuemper would really push Jordan Binnington and Nikita Kucherov for (the imaginary) second-half MVP.

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.

PHT Morning Skate: Bolts need Vasilevskiy; Isles should be buyers

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Welcome to the PHT Morning Skate, a collection of links from around the hockey world. Have a link you want to submit? Email us at phtblog@nbcsports.com.

• The Flyers are rallying behind Oskar Lindblom after his Ewing’s sarcoma diagnosis. (NBC Sports Philadelphia)

• The Bolts need Andrei Vasilevskiy to play like he’s one of the best in the world again. (Tampa Times)

• Coaches have been getting fired for reasons both known and unknown. (Los Angeles Times)

• The Blackhawks keep finding ways to hit new lows this season. (NBC Sports Chicago)

• Jim Benning was looking to trade Sven Baertschi, but he was forced to put him on waivers. (Vancouver Sun)

• A London Knights physiotherapist helped save Tucker Tynan’s life. (CTV News)

Tom Wilson has become a new-age power forward. (Sportsnet)

• Four players from the Professional Women’s Hockey Players Association will play in the ECHL All-Star classic. (The Ice Garden)

• If good teams don’t go on long losing streaks, what does that mean for the Edmonton Oilers? (Edmonton Journal)

• Referee Tim Peel is likely done for the season after suffering a broken leg. (RMNB)

• Islanders GM Lou Lamorielllo should dip into the rental market this season. (GothamSN)

• Alexis Lafreniere is hoping to become the next future first overall pick to turn in an incredible performance at the World Juniors. (Featurd)

• It’s still too early to say that Jack Eichel is among the greatest players. (Rotoworld)

• It’s time for the Anaheim Ducks to rebuild. (Spector’s Hockey)

• Former Lightning head coach Steve Ludzik needs a liver transplant. (Tampa Times)

Joey Alfieri is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @joeyalfieri.

The Buzzer: Kane’s hat trick; Staal’s milestone night

Patrick Kane #88 of the Chicago Blackhawks celebrates with Jonathan Toews
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Three Stars

1) Patrick Kane, Chicago Blackhawks

Kane surpassed Sidney Crosby for the scoring lead this decade with 16 days left in the 2010s. Since Jan. 1, 2010, Kane has 791 points (311G, 480A), while Crosby has 788 points (296G, 492A). No. 88 recorded his sixth NHL hat trick in Chicago’s 5-3 victory over Minnesota. The Blackhawks have a long way to go if they want to have a realistic shot at the Stanley Cup Playoffs, but a victory against a surging division rival is a good place to start.

2) Mark Scheifele, Winnipeg Jets

On a football Sunday, the Jets scored a touchdown in their 7-3 victory over the Philadelphia Flyers. Scheifele played a huge part with his three-point performance featuring a goal and two assists as he extended his individual point streak to six games. Neal Pionk added three assists, including two power-play helpers. The top four teams in the Western Conference (Blues, Avalanche, Jets, Stars) currently reside in the Central Division and playoff positioning will be crucial as each team eyes a lengthy postseason run.

3) Eric Staal, Minnesota Wild

Staal became the 89th player in NHL history to have 1,000 career points when he tallied a power-play goal against Chicago Sunday. After a dreadful 4-9 start to the season, the Wild have climbed up the standings with a 12-4-5 record in their past 21 games. The alternate captain leads Minnesota with 26 points, including four goals in the previous three games.

Other notable performances from Sunday:

  • Anze Kopitar’s two-goal performance in the Kings’ 4-2 victory against the Red Wings helped him surpass the iconic Wayne Gretzky for fourth place on the franchise’s all-time scoring list. Kopitar picked up his 918th and 919th point in his 1038th game.
  • Blake Wheeler finished with three points, including a goal and an assist during a four-goal barrage spanning 4:17.

Highlights of the Night

Staal etched his name in the NHL record books with this one-time blast

William Karlsson won an important foot race before Reilly Smith slid a cross-ice pass over to Jonathan Marchessault

Factoids

  • A total of 33 goals were scored across four contests Sunday for an average of 8.25 per game [NHL PR].
  • The Jets scored four goals in a span of five minutes or less for the fourth time in franchise history [NHL PR].
  • The Jets’ four goals in a span of 4:17 are their second-fastest scored in a game in franchise history, behind the mark of 3:50 set on Nov. 18, 2017 [NHL PR].
  • Canucks’ Bo Horvat has won an NHL-high 414 faceoffs this season [Sportsnet Stats].

NHL Scores

Winnipeg Jets 7, Philadelphia Flyers 3

Chicago Blackhawks 5, Minnesota Wild 3

Los Angeles Kings 4, Detroit Red Wings 2

Vegas Golden Knights 6, Vancouver Canucks 3

Sabres demote under-performing center Mittelstadt to minors

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BUFFALO, N.Y. — The Buffalo Sabres have assigned under-performing second-year center Casey Mittelstadt to the minors.

The demotion to Rochester of the AHL was made Sunday, coming a day following a 3-2 overtime loss at the New York Islanders in which Mittelstadt was a healthy scratch for the third time in four games.

The 21-year-old has four goals and five assists in 31 games this season, and limited to just a goal and an assist in his past 21. Buffalo selected the play-making center with the eighth pick in the 2017 draft following his senior year in high school.

He then signed with Buffalo and jumped directly to the NHL in making his Sabres debut immediately following his freshman college season at Minnesota.

Mittelstadt has failed to play up to early projections of developing into Buffalo’s second-line center. He has 17 goals and 22 assists for 39 points in 114 career NHL games.

Players hope U.S.-Canada rivalry game helps spawn pro league

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HARTFORD, Conn. — The United States women’s hockey team beat Canada 4-1 on Saturday night, with players hoping the first in a series of five games between the international rivals will help kindle the public’s interest in both their sport and their fight off the ice for better professional opportunities.

Canada’s Victoria Bach and the Megan Keller of the U.S. traded power-play goals in the first period, before Amanda Kessel put the U.S. on top for good with a player advantage in the second. Abbe Roque’s backhand in the period gave the US a 3-1 lead and Alex Carpenter beat Genevieve Lacasse for the final goal 1:15 seconds later.

More than 7,000 fans showed up for the international competition, which comes after more than 200 members of what has since become the Professional Women’s Hockey Players’ Association announced in May they would not play professionally in North America during the 2019-2020 season.

“I think it’s important for people to watch us play and see the level of talent and entertainment that’s out there,” Kessel said. “It’s getting that understanding that we need to help get us a place to play year-round so that people can see us more than five times a year.”

The women are seeking a professional league that provides a living wage, health insurance, infrastructure and support for training. The Canadian Women’s Hockey League shut down in the spring after 12 years of operation, leaving only the five-team National Women’s Hockey League, where most players make less than $10,000 a season.

“The product is there,” Kessel said. “The people to watch it are there. We just need a structure set in place.”

Sarah Nurse, a forward for Team Canada, whose cousin Kia Nurse plays for New York in the WNBA, said players are hoping to get support from the NHL, which has, so far, expressed little interest in investing in a women’s league.

“We can look at (the WNBA) and see that women’s sports have value and they have a place in this world,” said Nurse, who made $2,000 last season playing in the CWHL. “That is definitely a model that we look to.”

The rivalry series was created after the Four Nations Cup in Sweden was canceled when top Swedish players pulled out of national team events due to concerns over their salary and working conditions.

Without a viable pro league, players who are out of college have been training on their own at random rinks across North America in between gatherings of the national teams or training sessions and exhibitions sponsored by the players association.

Canada won two of those over the US in Pittsburgh last month.

But the lack of consistent competition can stunt the players’ development, especially when it comes to be being prepared for world and Olympic competitions, the players said.

“It’s very unfortunate,” Nurse said. “Games are when we truly get better and test out our skills, so it’s unfortunate that we don’t have more games to play.”

Cayla Barnes, who plays defense for the U.S. team and Boston College, said she and the other college players on the national teams understand what is going on and appreciate what the older players are doing.

“They are putting so much on the line for the younger generations,” she said. “Not just for us college kids who are coming up, but for U-8, U-10 girls who are coming up so they have opportunities later on. So I think all of us who are younger are trying to support them in whatever way we can.”

Hundreds of girls wearing their youth hockey jerseys attended the game, chanting “U-S-A” as the final seconds ticked off the clock.

“I want to be like them, like in the Olympics when I get older,” said 14-year-old Leila Espirito Santo, of Glastonbury “I started playing when I was in fourth grade and I wasn’t the best, but watching them play made me want to be better. It showed me I could do it.”

The teams will meet again on Tuesday in Moncton, New Brunswick. Other games part of the 2019-20 Rivalry Series are slated for Feb. 3 and Feb. 5 in Vancouver, British Columbia, and Feb. 8 in Anaheim, California.