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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?)

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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.

Coyotes beat Blues, move into playoff spot in Western Conference

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There is a pretty improbable and unbelievable story unfolding in Arizona right now.

Thanks to their 3-1 win over the St. Louis Blues on Tuesday night, the Arizona Coyotes now find themselves in sole possession of the second Wild Card spot in the Western Conference, temporarily moving ahead of the Minnesota Wild with 12 games remaining in the regular season.

The Coyotes are now 12-4-0 in their past 16 games with their next two coming against the Anaheim Ducks and Edmonton Oilers, presenting what should be a prime opportunity to keep collecting points and making a move toward a playoff spot.

It’s such an unbelievable development because this is a team that has not only missed the playoffs in each of the past six seasons, but was also the worst team in the Western Conference a year ago.

[Related: Tocchet ensuring Coyotes ‘don’t waste days’ in pursuit of playoffs]

Not enough of a challenge for them?

Throw in the fact their roster has been absolutely decimated by injuries this season with Derek Stepan, Antti Raanta, Jakob Chychrun, Michael Grabner, Brad Richardson, Alex Galchenyuk, Christian Dvorak, Nick Schmaltz, and Jason Demers all missing at least 10 games this season, with several of them missing more than 20.

Maybe there isn’t a superstar among that group, or even an All-Star right now, but that is still a pretty extensive list of players the Coyotes were expected to lean on, while several of them have been unavailable for significant portions of the season due to injury.

They are still currently playing without Raanta (their starting goalie), Stepan (their top center), and Schmaltz (acquired in the big Dylan Strome trade with Chicago earlier this season).

That is not an easy thing to overcome when you are still a rebuilding team that didn’t seem to have a ton of depth at the start of the year.

With all of that added together it wouldn’t have been a shock to see the Coyotes once again near the bottom of the Western Conference. But thanks to Darcy Kuemper‘s ability to take over the starting goaltending duties, and what has become a balanced lineup that now boasts 11 different players with double-digit goals they have managed to not only stay in the race but actually crawl into a playoff spot.

They still have a long way to go before they can actually punch their ticket (Minnesota is still only one point back with a head-to-head game remaining), but if they manage to pull this off you can be sure it is going to make coach Rick Tocchet a serious contender for the Jack Adams trophy as the NHL’s coach of the year.

The Coyotes making the playoffs might be the only thing that could take that award away from Barry Trotz.

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.

Q&A: Coyotes GM John Chayka on dealing with injuries, Tocchet’s influence

Winners of eight of their last 10 games, the Arizona Coyotes have crawled up the Western Conference standings and have surprisingly played their way into the wild card race. With a roster that is second in the NHL with over 300 man-games lost to injury, they currently sit three points behind the Minnesota Wild with a game in-hand.

In the thick of the wild card race, you won’t find Coyotes general manager checking his phone to see the out-of-town scoreboard or updated standings on a nightly basis, however.

“You know what, we’ve got so many things going on here, and our guys have been on a roll that I just know if we keep taking care of things and keep winning we’ll be in a good spot,” Chayka told Pro Hockey Talk on Friday. “I can honestly tell you I don’t do a ton of scoreboard watching.”

While only three of their final 11 games in March are against teams currently occupying playoff positions, every game for the last few weeks has been “playoff mode” for the Coyotes. Fortunately for them, the players have stepped as injuries ravaged the lineup, including Darcy Kuemper, who’s played a career high in games (41) this season after Antti Raanta went down.

“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. Credit to [head coach Rick Tocchet], too, because he’s got the guys playing a very detail-oriented system, limiting chances and when there are chances given up, obviously Darcy’s done a nice job of stopping them. Any time you get a guy like that to step up, a goalie, be a No. 1 and stop as many pucks as he has, it’s a good thing for us.”

We spoke to Chayka about the Coyotes dealing with injuries, his approach to the NHL trade deadline, Dylan Strome’s success in Chicago and more.

Enjoy.

Q. What’s impressed you most about your team this season and the way they’ve taken to the “next man up” mentality with all the injuries?

CHAYKA: “Just the leadership, and as a result, the resiliency. Rick Tocchet’s the ultimate leader of our team as a head coach. He hasn’t wavered, he hasn’t complained, he hasn’t felt sorry for us the next day after a big injury or two — it just seemed like every day we were getting a different one. He’s done a great job of keeping guys steady and obviously, [Oliver] Ekman-Larsson, first year as captain, new role. Some guys have trouble with it, some guys excel. I think he’s excelled. Him and Tocc together have been a great leadership duo through the good times and the bad here.”

Q. Was there a point this season where another guy went down and you’re like, ‘Come on, really?'”

CHAYKA: “Yeah, I lost count after a certain number. You know, injuries are part of the game. I think we did everything in our power in the off-season to add as much depth as possible in the event that you lose some guys. It’s not just the number of games lost, it’s really been the combinations of premium position players that have gone down. That’s been the frustrating part, but everyone deals with injuries. I think our guys have done a helluva job of managing it and staying steady. Now we’re in a place where we’re getting some guys back, too, and ready to make a push. It’s out of your control, for the most part, so you deal with it.”

Q. Are you surprised that with 300-plus man games lost you’re right in the mix for a wild card spot this late in the year?

CHAYKA: “If you had told me that was the case when we were perfectly healthy we probably would have taken that, too. We’ve shown great improvement year over year. Our young players continue to get better and continue to drive us and we want to play meaningful games down the stretch here and get ourselves a chance to play in the playoffs. We’ve had to weather the storm a little bit through the year. In a lot of ironic ways it’s been a really good season and hopefully our guys can have a good run down the stretch here and get us in.”

Q. You don’t want to make a panic move in response to injuries, but were you a little more aggressive around the trade deadline in seeking out some additional help to try and boost this chase for a playoff spot?

CHAYKA: “We worked hard at the deadline. We had a lot of conversations. We looked to improve our group. I think the key was that we’ve got a group here that’s done a good job and got us this far and in order to improve on our group we had to get a really good player. The status quo with some of these guys that come up, the [Conor] Garlands and the [Mario] Kempes and [Lawson] Crouses have elevated their games, and [Josh] Archibald’s been one of our better players the last number of games here. If someone was coming in to displace a player, they had to be a really good player. We wanted to do something that could make sense for now and in the future. We were willing to do some moves that we thought would part with significant futures, but it had to be the right fit, and unfortunately we weren’t able to find something that made sense. But again, we believe in this group. They’ve brought us this far and we thought we owed it to them to see it through and allow them to sink or swim, and so far they’ve been doing a heckuva job.”

Q. A number of players on the roster are young and have yet to experience playoff hockey. Playoffs or not this season, the intensity of the games of late has to be providing them with some valuable experience going forward.

CHAYKA: “Yeah, the last few months the [Jakob] Chychruns, the Kellers, the [Christian] Dvoraks, the [Christian] Fischers, Garlands, they’re all learning a lot and they’re learning by trial by fire right now. It’s great and it’s good experience for them. But I also know that these are guys that we selected for a reason and made them a part of our core future because they won at all levels, they expect to win, they expect to be the best, and they’re not taking anything for granted down the stretch. They want to get in, they want to be the best and that’s what drives these guys, and that’s why I think we’ll have success.”

Q. Do you look at what Dylan Strome has done in Chicago since the trade, and even Max Domi in Montreal, and ask yourself, ‘Did we give up on them too early?’

CHAYKA: “Our goal through trades is you draft players that you can draft and develop, but at some point you’re drafting for asset value and you’ve got to put together a team. You’re trying to find the right combination and right chemistry for your group. Obviously with Alex Galchenyuk, you get a pure goal scorer, a guy that can shoot them with the best in the league. There were many times last year where we were in a tight game, 1-1, with five minutes left and we get a chance and we can’t score and the other team gets a chance and their guys score and we lose the game. This year the tables have turned in that sense where Alex and Vinnie Hinostroza, some of these guys have come in and they’ve made a big play at the right time and that’s what we were looking for.

“You get a young scorer like Alex, [that] was something we were after and you’ve got to give to get. The same thing with Nick Schmaltz. With our system, with our style of play, we felt like speed through the middle of the ice is a rare asset and [he’s] a guy that can not only skate but make plays and make his teammates better and linemates better and think at a very high level and skate with a guy like Clayton Keller. We thought that that was something that really aligned with our vision of how we wanted to build out our team. 

“We traded some good players and we got some good players in return. The end result will be what our group does here and so far we’ve been able to string together a really good stretch of games with a really good team. That was our goal in making those trades.”

Q. What characteristics did you see in Rick Tocchet that made him your No. 1 choice when seeking a head coach?

CHAYKA: “I don’t think people know who good of a coach this guy is. Just to see him day in, day out with what he’s capable of doing. His ability to wear many different hats and do it in a way that is very genuine, I think that’s been the key. He’s a hard-driving guy. He wants to win, he’s passionate, he’s won at all levels and won at the highest level in his career as a player and a coach. He knows what it takes and wants to impress upon our group what it does take. When I was hiring a head coach I was looking for a partnership, someone that can come in and I can work with that had a shared vision that I could trust. I’ve allowed Tocc to run his team and develop the systems and culture he thought would be best and so far he’s done a phenomenal job of that. 

“He doesn’t get enough credit for turning around a culture and a franchise and getting us on the right track and getting the most out of his players every single night. That’s what he’s done.”

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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.

Injury-ravaged Coyotes lose Derek Stepan for playoff push

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The hits just keep coming for the Arizona Coyotes.

With a five-game winning streak in tow, the Coyotes have risen to the point that they’re legitimate contenders for a West wild-card spot, but they’re going to need to go through much – if not all – of that playoff push without key center Derek Stepan.

Stepan’s expected to miss four-to-six weeks with a lower-body injury, according to Coyotes coach Rick Tocchet.

Arizona’s final regular-season game takes place on April 6, so perhaps there’s room for Stepan to return for the later stages of that push (especially considering how often hockey players tend to beat recovery windows), but there’s also the possibility that he would only get to play again if the Coyotes make the 2019 Stanley Cup Playoffs.

Stepan, 28, was injured during a seemingly innocuous play during Thursday’s eventual 5-2 win against the Vancouver Canucks.

Stepan isn’t the only noteworthy Coyotes player who’s out, and many of them might miss the rest of the season. Antti Raanta, Michael Grabner, and Jason Demers have been out for months, while Nick Schmaltz has already been ruled out through this season.

As The Athletic’s Craig Morgan notes, the Coyotes now appear very weak at center, with a group anchored by Brad Richardson, Christian Dvorak, Nick Cousins, and Mario Kempe (although this might be a situation where Alex Galchenyuk gets another look down the middle).

With a modest 32 points in 64 games, Stepan might not strike you as a crucial part of the Coyotes, yet he ranks fourth in scoring.

He’s also a versatile player. Stepan comfortably averages the most ice time per game of any Arizona forward (19:17), and only trails Richardson (2:41) for shorthanded ice-time per game among Coyotes forwards with 2:03 per night. Stepan saw a four-game point streak (two goals, three assists) end during Thursday’s games, and had been heating up in general with eight points in his past nine games.

The Coyotes will have to hope they can continue to gain points by committee, and that Darcy Kuemper can continue his hot recent play after going 8-3-1 with a strong .923 save percentage in February.

This would be a big challenge with the team at full-strength, but would be especially impressive if the Coyotes can keep this going with Stepan added to a significant, troubling list of injured players.

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.

Canadiens surprisingly exceeding expectations

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The Montreal Canadiens’ trade for Nate Thompson on Monday afternoon isn’t anything that is going to make the rest of the Eastern Conference sit up and take notice. It is not going to put the fear of God in the Tampa Bay Lightning or Toronto Maple Leafs, or change the course of the playoffs and impact where the Stanley Cup ends up. It is a likely playoff team adding a role player to its lineup for a small price and trying to find any small upgrade it can. Nothing more, nothing less.

What’s important is what it says about the Canadiens as a team this season.

They are buyers and looking to add.

This is a surprising development because of where they were, or at least seemed to be, at the start of the season.

Consider the fact they had one of the worst records in the league a season ago that ended with a disastrous second-half collapse.

In the offseason, they traded two of the best offensive players (on what was a bad offensive team) in Max Pacioretty and Alex Galchenyuk for a package of players that, at the time, didn’t seem to make them better. In exchange for Galchenyuk, they received Max Domi‘s whose development had badly stalled with the Arizona Coyotes and had produced only a fraction of what Galchenyuk had with the Canadiens. It looked like a clear downgrade.

In return for Pacioretty, one of the league’s best goal-scorers over the past six years, they received Tomas Tatar, a historically solid performer that was coming off of a terrible postseason run with the Vegas Golden Knights, and a lot of potential in the future. Again, it didn’t seem to make them any better in the short-term.

Then on top of all of that there was the fact that their top defender, Shea Weber, was going to be sidelined for most of the first half of the season.

There was little reason for optimism, and I will admit to being extremely critical of the moves and the direction the team seemed to be going in, especially with how much money they have tied up in Weber and Price, both of whom are on the wrong side of 30. That should still be a long-term concern, but sometimes you’re wrong in the short-term.

For them to exceed expectations it was almost as if they would need Carey Price to do what he did during the 2014-15 season and single handedly carry the team and sweep all of the major postseason awards.

[Related: Claude Julien has Canadiens playing fast, aggressive]

Now more than 50 games into the season, and with all of the factors above working against them, the Canadiens have more than exceeded all preseason expectations and barring another late season collapse look to be a solid lock to return to the playoffs. And they’ve done it without Carey Price being … well … Carey Price. He’s been good overall, and he’s been great lately, but he hasn’t been consistently great from the start, and he even had a really tough start to the season where he was playing significantly below his normal career level.

Despite that, the Canadiens kept winning, which is a positive development for the short-term outlook of the franchise. Why? Because everything about this team right now is legitimately good. They are playing with an aggressiveness and a level of speed that has been lacking in Montreal for years. Their possession and scoring chances numbers are among the best in the NHL. Their 5-on-5 shot attempt share is the third-best in the league, while they are in the top-five in scoring chance share and top-10 in High-Danger scoring chances.

Weber has been great since returning to the lineup, Domi has become the player Arizona always thought he would be, while Tatar has returned to the form he showed in his pre-Vegas career. Along with those developments, Philip Danault has taken a massive step forward this season both offensively and defensively, and the arrival and rapid development of rookie and No. 3 overall pick Jesperi Kotkaniemi looks like it could fill a long-term hole at center.

It’s not easy for the Canadiens to slide under the radar in the NHL just because of the history, the legacy of the franchise, where they are located, and the mystique around them. In most seasons Claude Julien would probably be a lock for the Jack Adams Award given how well the team has played and how much better it has been than originally expected. But given the surprising success stories with the New York Islanders and Calgary Flames the Canadiens have managed to do the impossible  and have a really good team that has gone relatively unnoticed in the NHL.

It might be time to start taking notice because not only are they really good and playing really well, their best player and biggest game-changer — Price — is starting to play like they expect him to. Those two developments working together could make them a fierce matchup for somebody early in the playoffs.

More: PHT’s 2019 NHL Trade Deadline Tracker

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.