What’s driving Coyotes’ fast start, and how can they maintain it?

PITTSBURGH — The Arizona Coyotes probably deserved a better result Friday night in Pittsburgh.

A lost face-off followed by a fluke bounce, Phil Kessel missing a wide open net, and a couple of jaw-dropping saves by Penguins goalie Tristan Jarry were just enough to turn yet another solid road effort into a tough-luck 2-0 loss, dropping them one point back of the Edmonton Oilers for first place in the Pacific Division. Even with that result the Coyotes are still off to one of the best starts in franchise history (even dating back to the Winnipeg days) and have at least put themselves on solid ground in the Western Conference playoff race.

Here’s how good their start has been:

  • Their .613 points percentage as of Friday is fourth best in the Western Conference, while they have a six-point cushion between them and the group of teams outside the playoff picture. That may not seem like a huge gap in early December with still three quarters of the season remaining, but history suggests not many teams (less than 20 percent) are able to make up that sort of deficit. The odds are in their favor.
  • Their 38 points through 31 games are tied for the fourth most in the franchise’s 40-year history, and are the most since they had 41 points during the 2013-14 season (that team ended up missing the playoffs by just two points following a second-half collapse. The Western Conference was also far more competitive and top-heavy that season than it is this season).
  • They allowing just 2.26 goals per game, the second lowest total in the league.

In a lot of ways this team has been a Western Conference version of the New York Islanders. They don’t really have an offense that is going to break games open, and they don’t rate very highly in a lot of analytical areas when it comes to shot attempts or shot rates, all of which can lead to some skepticism. But like the Islanders they help make up for the lack of quantity in a couple of other key areas. Their “expected goals against” rate (via Natural Stat Trick) is in the top-10 in the league, indicating that while they give up a lot of attempts they don’t give up the type of attempts that typically turn into goals. They are one of the most disciplined and least penalized teams in the league, almost entirely eliminating the special teams battle. And the most important element? They have one of the best goaltending duos in the league in Darcy Kuemper and Antti Raanta.

Those two many not be household names around the league, but since being united in Arizona the list of goalies that have outperformed them can be counted on one hand. Since the start of the 2017-18 season both Raanta and Kuemper are in the top-five (among the 56 goalies with at least 50 games played) in all situations save percentage and even-strength save percentage, while both are in the top-10 in penalty kill save percentage. When a team gets that sort of goaltending a lot of flaws that might otherwise exist suddenly go away, and given that both have been able to play at such a high level for an extended period of time it’s easy to buy into it being sustainable. Even before arriving in Arizona both goalies had shown an ability to be above average goalies but were simply in positions where they were unable to get real playing time.

So how do the Coyotes build on this start and turn it into something that can extend their season into the spring?

1. Resist the urge to trade a goalie. Don’t try to to “trade from a strength to fill a weakness,” or even try to suggest it. The strength is what is literally driving the team right now. Not only that, it is almost a necessity to have two good goalies to win in the NHL these days because of how important it is to limit the starter’s workload and keep them fresh. Having two highly productive goalies signed to cap-friendly contracts through next season is a massive advantage. Take advantage of it. Keep them both and keep each them fresh by playing them each regularly. Their success isn’t a fluke.

2. Hope for a rebound from the top players. One of the most surprising aspects of their start is the trio of Phil Kessel, Clayton Keller, and Oliver Ekman-Larsson has combined for just 13 goals this season, putting them on a pace for only 34 goals over 82 games. A year ago that trio scored 55 goals. All three are currently being crushed on the shooting percentage front, and while Keller has never really been a high percentage scorer, the other two have been. Kessel has shown signs the past few games that he could be on the verge of one of his goal-scoring binges, while Ekman-Larsson has scored at least 12 goals in each of the past six seasons, at least 14 goals in five of those seasons. He is due. If those two can get their puck luck to change the offense will suddenly look a lot different (and better).

3. Get Niklas Hjalmarsson back. The other surprising element of their success has been that they have played almost the entire season without Hjalmarsson after he was injured back in October when he was hit by a shot. He is back on the ice skating, and given his original time frame is probably a couple of weeks away from returning to the lineup. It would be a significant add because Hjalmarsson is one of the team’s best defensive players. If he can return to that level it would be a significant addition to a lineup that is already one of the best teams in the league at preventing goals.

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.

 

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    Mitch Marner extends Maple Leafs-record points streak to 21 games

    Mitch Marner
    USA Today
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    TORONTO — Mitch Marner extended his franchise-record points streak to 21 games with a second-period goal and the Toronto Maple Leafs beat the Los Angeles Kings 5-0 on Thursday night.

    Marner gave Toronto a 4-0 lead with his 11th goal of the season, scoring on a slap shot after a Los Angeles turnover inside its blue line.

    Marner became the 10th player in the past 35 years to string together a streak of 21 or more games. He has 10 goals and 16 assists during the run.

    Auston Matthews, Pierre Engvall, David Kampf and William Nylander also scored for Toronto. Ilya Samsonov made 29 saves for his first shutout with the Maple Leafs and the seventh of his career.

    Toronto has won seven of eight to improve to 17-5-6.

    Los Angeles dropped to 14-11-4 with its seventh loss in 10 games. Kings goalie Jonathan Quick made 36 saves.

    Penguins’ Kris Letang returns to practice 10 days after stroke

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    PITTSBURGH — Pittsburgh Penguins defenseman Kris Letang returned to practice with his teammates just 10 days after suffering the second stroke of his career.

    The 35-year-old Letang remains out indefinitely, with the club describing him as “day to day.”

    Letang said he felt “pretty good” after being greeted by stick taps from his teammates when he skated onto the ice at the team’s practice facility. Still, the married father of two called the experience “scary,” particularly for his family.

    “My kids, they don’t care if I’m a hockey player or not,” he said. “They care about having a dad. Same with my wife. She could care less about hockey. She knows there’s so much more. After hockey, there’s a long time and you want to be able to enjoy those moments with your family, with your kids.”

    Letang missed more than two months in 2014 after his first stroke, which was caused by a small hole in the wall of his heart. The condition also led to the second stroke, which Letang suffered on Nov. 28 after dealing with a series of debilitating headaches.

    This time, the symptoms have resolved themselves much more quickly, according to team physician Dr. Dharmesh Vyas, who described this stroke as “smaller” than the one Letang endured in 2014.

    Letang began skating on his own just two days after the diagnosis and was cleared to return to practice on Thursday though both Letang and Vyas stressed they are in no rush for him to play in games.

    “We don’t think this is accelerated in any way,” Vyas said. “We are taking all the right precautions to make sure that it is safe to go out and play and when that time comes we’ll let him go back to playing his sport.”

    Pittsburgh coach Mike Sullivan said it was a “relief” to see Letang back at work.

    “It’s a great visual that he’s making progress,” Sullivan said. “Our medical team that has monitored him extremely closely feels comfortable with some of the progress that he’s making and the steps he’s taken. Everyone was excited for him to join the group.”

    Letang signed a six-year contract extension over the summer that will carry him into his 40s if he decides to play that long. Vyas said the data around strokes is “evolving” though it is unclear if Letang is now more susceptible to having additional strokes now that he’s had a second one.

    The six-time All-Star is cautious but optimistic.

    “We’ve been through this,” Letang said. “Me and Dharmesh have a clear understanding that we’re going to take all the time we need and make sure the research is possible and it’s no danger for me to keep going.”

    The Penguins are 8-1-1 over their last 10 games and have won three straight heading into a home-and-home series with the Sabres. They’re also eager to have Letang’s familiar No. 58 back in the lineup, but only when he’s ready.

    “He’s been here for a long time and his experience and everything that he brings on and off the ice, the way he competes (is important),” Penguins captain Sidney Crosby said. “But I think in the (locker) room, (he has) poise and (he’s) somebody who’s been around a long time and whose experience you feel when he’s around.”

    Thompson nets 4 in 1st, 5 overall, as Buffalo tops Columbus

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    Russell LaBounty/USA TODAY Sports
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    COLUMBUS, Ohio — Tage Thompson matched an NHL record by scoring four times in the first period and finished with five goals and an assist as the Buffalo Sabres won their third straight road game, 9-4 over the Columbus Blue Jackets on Wednesday night.

    Thompson is the second U.S.-born player to score five goals in a game. He is the fourth player in NHL history to record four goals in the first period of a regular-season game, joining Peter Bondra (1994), Grant Mulvey (1982) and Joe Malone (1921). He is also the fourth active player to score five goals in a game, joining Timo Meier (Jan. 17, 2022), Mika Zibanejad (March 5, 2020) and Patrik Laine (Nov. 24, 2018).

    “It’s definitely a rewarding feeling,” Thompson said. “You’ve spent a lot of years working to get to this point and to be rewarded for it is a pretty good feeling and it just leaves you hungrier.”

    Thompson’s outburst helped Buffalo score six times in the first 16:40.

    “That was an amazing performance by Tage, and really, the whole group set the table,” Sabres coach Don Granato said. “I thought the energy, the collective effort, the focus to start was really good and enabled that to happen.”

    Alex Tuch had a goal and three assists, Dylan Cozens added a power-play goal and two assists and Rasmus Dahlin finished with a goal and two assists. Peyton Krebs also scored. Jeff Skinner picked up four assists and Jacob Bryson had two. Ukko-Pekka Luukkonen stopped 20 shots.

    Patrik Laine and Gustav Nyquist each scored twice for Columbus.

    Joonas Korpisalo stopped two shots before being pulled in the first in favor of Elvis Merzlikins, who stopped 15 shots through the second period. Korpisalo returned in the third and finished with six saves.

    Columbus has lost six straight home games and five of its last six overall.

    “We didn’t have an answer for that one line,” Blue Jackets coach Brad Larsen said. “Tage Thompson just tore us up tonight.”

    Buffalo dominated from the puck drop, scoring four goals on its first six shots.

    Cozens put the Sabres on the board at 3:21 of the first, 53 seconds into a Blue Jackets penalty, and Thompson made it 2-0 just 2:09 later. Dahlin scored Buffalo’s third goal at 7:28 of the first, driving Korpisalo from the net in favor of Merzlikins, who gave up Buffalo goal No. 4 to Thompson 32 seconds later.

    Thompson’s third career hat trick and second of the season came on a power-play goal at 12:22 of the first. He followed with his fourth goal, also on the power play, at 16:40.

    Columbus scored two goals in just over a minute, with Laine at 10:49 and Nyquist at 12:04, before Buffalo reeled off three straight in just over three minutes to end the period, including Thompson’s fifth, and goals by Krebs and Tuch.

    Laine and Nyquist scored in the third period for Columbus.

    STREAKING

    Cozens has 12 points in his last five games and is riding a career-best, five-game point streak. Thompson has eight goals and five assists in his last five games and 10 multi-point games. Dahlin has a five-game point and assist streak, and Gaudreau stretched his points streak to six games.

    NOTES: The Sabres joined the Kraken as the second team this season to score nine goals in a game. … Thompson is the second player in Buffalo history to have five goals in a game, joining Dave Andreychuk, who had five goals and an assist on Feb. 6, 1986.

    UP NEXT

    Buffalo: Hosts Pittsburgh on Friday.

    Columbus: Hosts Calgary on Friday.

    Ovechkin, Strome lead Capitals past struggling Flyers 4-1

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    PHILADELPHIA — Alex Ovechkin scored two empty-net goals, Dylan Strome had a goal and an assist and the Washington Capitals defeated the Philadelphia Flyers 4-1 on Wednesday night.

    T.J. Oshie also scored for the Capitals, who finished 3-3 on a six-game trip. Charlie Lindgren made 29 saves.

    Kevin Hayes scored for Philadelphia, which has lost 13 of 15 games. Carter Hart made 23 stops.

    Strome broke a 1-all tie with 10:41 remaining when he deflected John Carlson‘s shot from long range past Hart.

    Hayes had a golden opportunity to tie it on a Philadelphia power play, but Lindgren made a great right pad save on a try from close range with 8:20 remaining.

    Ovechkin iced it, scoring into an empty net with 1:35 left and adding another empty-netter with 8.2 seconds left for his 15th of the season. Ovechkin has 795 career goals, good for third all-time. He is six goals away from tying Gordie Howe for second place. Wayne Gretzky, with 894 goals, tops the list.

    Hayes scored his ninth goal of the season for his team-leading 28th point with 4:14 left in the first period to give the Flyers a 1-0 lead. Hayes rushed to the bench after breaking his stick on a slap shot attempt, and scored on a wrist shot from the high slot with his new stick.

    The Flyers had a power-play goal for the third straight game and have four overall in that stretch. Philadelphia, which began play ranked 30th in the NHL in scoring on the man advantage, now has converted 16.7% (14 of 84) of its chances.

    Oshie tied it 3:51 into the second on the Capitals’ fourth power play as the Flyers continued to take sloppy penalties. This time, James van Riemsdyk committed Philadelphia’s third tripping minor of the game. Oshie made them pay with his fifth goal of the season when he finished a nifty passing sequence with Strome and Evgeny Kuznetsov with a perfectly placed one-timer over Hart’s left shoulder.

    NOTES: Van Riemsdyk returned after missing the last 20 games due to a broken right index finger. . Flyers forward Tanner Laczynski was placed on injured reserve after departing midway through the third period of Monday’s 5-3 win over Colorado with what looked like an injury to his left leg. . Washington was without several injured players, including starting goalie Darcy Kuemper (upper body). Kuemper was with the team, but missed his second in a row. . Carlson had two assists. . Philadelphia’s Cam Atkinson, out all season with an upper body injury, has been practicing and is close to returning.

    UP NEXT

    Capitals: Host Seattle on Friday night.

    Flyers: Open four-game trip at Vegas on Friday night.