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.

 

Bruins win Game 3 without Rask, Pastrnak; Hurricanes lose, Svechnikov injured

Bruins Hurricanes Game 3 Coyle Halak
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Heading into Game 3, the news was really bad for the Bruins. Heading out of a 3-1 win for the Bruins, who took a 2-1 series lead, the bad news swung against the Hurricanes in a big way.

[Read up on Tuukka Rask opting out of the NHL bubble.]

Halak was brilliant — except for a blunder — in helping Bruins beat Hurricanes in Game 3

For those of us familiar with Jaroslav Halak‘s career — not just that incredible 2010 Stanley Cup Playoffs run, but that too — it was hard not to belt out a “the other guy’s pretty good” when word surfaced that Rask opted out.

Aside from a disastrous puckhandling/passing moment that opened the door for a Nino Niederreiter power-play goal, Halak was nearly perfect in Game 3. Halak made 29 out of 30 saves in this big win. While Petr Mrazek was fine, it’s fair to wonder if the Hurricanes might turn to James Reimer, who helped Carolina win Game 2.

Here’s that blunder by Halak, which again ended up being an aberration:

Hurricanes lose game, Svechnikov might be injured

Looking back at Game 3, and looking forward at the rest of this First Round series, the Hurricanes must feel a mixture of regret and concern.

When it comes to regret, the Hurricanes must rue some special teams setbacks. While both teams went 1-for-5 on their power plays, the Bruins scored the game-winner shorthanded. It’s also tough to stomach when you realize that Carolina’s lone goal mainly boiled down to Halak’s gaffe.

Of course, there were also some moments that might tempt Rod Brind’Amour to get fined again. In particular, a missed high stick to Dougie Hamilton‘s face left Hurricanes fans fuming.

But the biggest concern is going forward. Late in Game 3, Andrei Svechnikov appeared to suffer a knee injury getting tangled up with Zdeno Chara. While it’s too early to tell how severe the issue might be, Svechnikov needed help off of the ice.

The Bruins showed that they could win without David Pastrnak and Rask, and maybe Carolina can do the same without its budding star. It’s pretty painful when you combine it with narrowly losing Game 3, though.

Charlie Coyle played well in Game 3, scoring a goal and an assist. Also, David Krejci turned some heads with some sharp passing, finishing Game 3 with two assists. Brad Marchand inflated the margin of victory with an empty-netter.

After being outshot 15-7 in the first period, the Bruins ended up with a 39-30 shots on goal advantage. That sure seems like a strong response to losing key players, and supporting Halak.

No. 4 Boston Bruins vs. No. 5 Carolina Hurricanes (BOS leads 2-1)

Wednesday, Aug. 12: Bruins 4, Hurricanes 3 (2OT) (recap)
Thursday, Aug. 13:Hurricanes 3, Bruins 2 (recap)
Saturday, Aug. 15: Boston 3, Carolina 1
Monday, Aug. 17: Boston at Carolina, 8 p.m. ET – NBCSN
*Wednesday, Aug. 19: Carolina at Boston – TBD
*Thursday, Aug. 20: Boston at Carolina – TBD
*Sunday, Aug. 23: Carolina at Boston – TBD

*if necessary

MORE:
• Stanley Cup Playoffs First Round schedule

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.

Coyotes-Avalanche stream: 2020 NHL Stanley Cup First Round

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NBCSN’s coverage of the 2020 Stanley Cup Playoffs continues with Friday’s First Round matchup between the Coyotes and Avalanche. Coverage begins at 3 p.m. ET on CNBC. Watch the Coyotes-Avalanche stream at 2 p.m. ET on the NBC Sports app by clicking here.

When you look at effort alone, the Coyotes presented a night-and-day difference between their play in Game 1 (passive, bad) and Game 2 (aggressive, good). Unfortunately for Arizona, the Avalanche are also aggressive and good, and they were able to squeeze out a win.

With that, the Coyotes find themselves down 2-0 heading into Game 3. The two teams played a physical, close game on Friday, so it will be interesting to see how the Avs and Coyotes perform during this back-to-back.

Could the fatigue factor benefit the defense-minded Coyotes? Maybe the Avalanche can burst out of the gate in Game 3 and leave the Coyotes feeling less than confident? So far, Nathan MacKinnon has been deadly, while Nazem Kadri has been clutch. Meanwhile, time is running out for Taylor Hall and the Coyotes. It could be a short series if Arizona can’t get it done in this one.

WHAT: Arizona Coyotes vs. Colorado Avalanche
WHERE: Rogers Place – Edmonton
WHEN: Saturday, August 15, 3 p.m. ET
TV: CNBC
ON THE CALL: Kenny Albert, Pierre McGuire
LIVE STREAM: You can watch the Coyotes-Avalanche stream on NBC Sports’ live stream page and the NBC Sports app.

No. 2 Colorado Avalanche vs. No. 7 Arizona Coyotes (COL leads 2-0)

Wednesday, Aug. 12: Avalanche 3, Coyotes 0 (recap)
Friday, Aug. 14: Avalanche 3, Coyotes 2 (recap)
Saturday, Aug. 15: Colorado at Arizona, 3 p.m. ET – CNBC
Monday, Aug. 17: Colorado at Arizona, 5:30 p.m. ET – NBCSN
*Wednesday, Aug. 19: Arizona at Colorado – TBD
*Friday, Aug. 21: Colorado at Arizona – TBD
*Sunday, Aug. 23: Arizona at Colorado – TBD

*if necessary

MORE:
• Stanley Cup Playoffs First Round schedule

Hurricanes-Bruins stream: 2020 NHL Stanley Cup First Round

No Rask Halak starts Bruins Hurricanes livestream Game 3
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NBCSN’s coverage of the 2020 Stanley Cup Playoffs continues with Saturday’s First Round matchup between the Hurricanes and Bruins. Coverage begins at 12 p.m. ET on NBC. Watch the Hurricanes-Bruins stream on the NBC Sports app by clicking here.

When Tuukka Rask made comments about not being in “prime shape” for the NHL Return to Play, maybe we should have seen it coming. Even so, it was a little startling to hear that Rask opted out of the return to play before Game 3 of Bruins – Hurricanes.

As the reigning Presidents’ Trophy winners, the Bruins were already dealing with turmoil. You don’t often see top seeds fall all the way to fourth place, but then again, sports leagues also don’t often need to navigate global pandemics. If the Bruins are going to go deep in the 2020 Stanley Cup Playoffs, they clearly need to overcome more than the Hurricanes.

While these are far from ideal circumstances, don’t count the Bruins out altogether. Boston turns to capable backup Jaroslav Halak, who probably could have had a shot at a starting job (or at least a 1A/1B situation) if he didn’t stick with the Bruins.

Being that David Pastrnak missed Game 2, the Bruins are dealing with some tough times. In the Hurricanes, they also face a very tough opponent. We’ll see if Boston can roll with the punches in Game 3 on Saturday afternoon on NBC.

WHAT: Carolina Hurricanes vs. Boston Bruins
WHERE: Scotiabank Arena – Toronto
WHEN: Saturday, August 15 – 12 p.m. ET
TV
: NBC
ON THE CALL: John Forslund, Mike Milbury, Brian Boucher
LIVE STREAM: You can watch the Hurricanes-Bruins stream on NBC Sports’ live stream page and the NBC Sports app.

No. 4 Boston Bruins vs. No. 5 Carolina Hurricanes (Series tied 1-1)

Wednesday, Aug. 12: Bruins 4, Hurricanes 3 (2OT) (recap)
Thursday, Aug. 13:Hurricanes 3, Bruins 2 (recap)
Saturday, Aug. 15: Boston at Carolina, 12 p.m ET – NBC
Monday, Aug. 17: Boston at Carolina, 8 p.m. ET – NBCSN
*Wednesday, Aug. 19: Carolina at Boston – TBD
*Thursday, Aug. 20: Boston at Carolina – TBD
*Sunday, Aug. 23: Carolina at Boston – TBD

*if necessary

MORE:
• Stanley Cup Playoffs First Round schedule

Bruins’ Tuukka Rask opts out of NHL return to play

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The Boston Bruins announced on Saturday morning that starting goalie Tuukka Rask has opted out of the NHL’s return to play this postseason and will be leaving the bubble in Toronto.

Rask had started the first two games of their First Round series against the Carolina Hurricanes.

The two teams play in Game 3 of the series on Saturday afternoon (12 p.m. ET, NBC).

[NBC 2020 STANLEY CUP PLAYOFF HUB]

“I want to be with my teammates competing, but at this moment there are things more important than hockey in my life, and that is being with my family. I want to thank the Bruins and my teammates for their support and wish them success,” said Rask in a statement released by the team.

Bruins general manager Don Sweeney said on a conference call that the team “completely” understands where Rask is coming from in his decision to opt out, and that the organization fully supports his decision, why he made it, and is not totally surprised by it.

Sweeney pointed out that Rask has three children at home, including a newborn daughter and that family has to be the priority. He also added that Rask’s family is safe and healthy and that there was no specific incident that resulted in him opting out, other than that he was having a difficult time being away in this environment.

With Rask now leaving the bubble, Jaroslav Halak will take over the starting goaltending duties for the Bruins.

Halak started one game for the Bruins in the Round-Robin phase, stopping 25 out of 29 shots in a loss to the Philadelphia Flyers. He appeared in 31 games during the regular season, posting an 18-6-6 record with a .919 save percentage.

No. 4 Boston Bruins vs. No. 5 Carolina Hurricanes (Series tied 1-1)

Wednesday, Aug. 12: Bruins 4, Hurricanes 3 (2OT) (recap)
Thursday, Aug. 13: Hurricanes 3, Bruins 2 (recap)
Saturday, Aug. 15: Boston at Carolina, 12 p.m ET – NBC
Monday, Aug. 17: Boston at Carolina, 8 p.m. ET – NBCSN
Wednesday, Aug. 19: Carolina at Boston – TBD
*Thursday, Aug. 20: Boston at Carolina – TBD
*Sunday, Aug. 23: Carolina at Boston – TBD

*if necessary

MORE:
• Stanley Cup Playoffs First Round schedule

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.