Brad Richardson

AP

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.

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.

The Buzzer: Richardson’s four goal game helps Coyotes stay in race

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Three Stars

1. Brad Richardson, Arizona Coyotes. It had been more than 20 years since a member of the Arizona Coyotes scored four goals in a game, and it was Brad Richardson, of all people, to snap that streak on Thursday night. He played the game of his life in a 5-2 win over the Vancouver Canucks to help the Coyotes stay in the Western Conference playoff race, an impressive accomplishment given where they were coming from a year ago and the brutal injury situation they have dealt with this season. The only other player in the NHL to score at least four goals in a game this season is Winnipeg Jets forward Patrik Laine, who scored five a few months ago.

2. Seth Jones, Columbus Blue Jackets. Seth Jones played 27 minutes for the Columbus Blue Jackets on Thursday night and scored his seventh career overtime goal to help lift his team to a 4-3 win over the Philadelphia Flyers. It is a big win for the Blue Jackets because it moved them back into a playoff position for now as they temporarily moved back ahead of the Pittsburgh Penguins. The Flyers, meanwhile, fall a little further back in lose a point they could not afford to lose in the standings.

3. Reilly Smith, Vegas Golden Knights. Reilly Smith got the better of his former team on Thursday night by scoring a pair of goals for the Vegas Golden Knights against the Florida Panthers, including the game-tying goal late in the third period to send the game to overtime. He also scored a highlight reel between-the-legs goal that you can see below. The Golden Knights went on to win in a shootout 6-5 and continue to roll toward a playoff spot in the Western Conference.

Other notable performances from Thursday

  • Hard to pick just one star for the New York Islanders as they completely crushed the Toronto Maple Leafs in John Tavares‘ first visit to Long Island in an opposing sweater (read all about it here). It was a pretty hostile environment, too.
  • The Boston Bruins delivered a pretty big statement win by crushing the Tampa Bay Lightning on Thursday night.
  • The Dallas Stars picked up a huge two points with a 4-3 overtime win against the Los Angeles Kings. For the Kings this is their 10th consecutive loss in a season that has been a huge disappointment.

Highlights of the Night

Oh just Connor McDavid doing some Connor McDavid things in a rare win for the Edmonton Oilers.

This is an absolutely ridiculous stick save by Los Angeles Kings goalie Jonathan Quick. Did not prevent them from losing their 10th game in a row, however.

This is more of a lowlight for the Kings from this game, but still funny to watch.

 

Here is the aforementioned incredible between-the-legs goal scored by Reilly Smith for the Vegas Golden Knights.

Factoids

  • The Boston Bruins went an entire calendar month without a regulation loss thanks to their big win over the Tampa Bay Lightning on Thursday night. [NHL PR]
  • Artemi Panarin became just the third undrafted player to begin his career with four consecutive 70-point seasons, joining Wayne Gretzky and Peter Stastny. [NHL PR]
  • The New York Islanders needed only 63 games to reach the 80-point mark. It is the eighth time in franchise history they have done that. [NHL PR]

Scores

New York Islanders 6, Toronto Maple Leafs 1

Columbus Blue Jackets 4, Philadelphia Flyers 3 (OT)

Boston Bruins 4, Tampa Bay Lightning 1

Edmonton Oilers 4, Ottawa Senators 2

Arizona Coyotes 5, Vancouver Canucks 3

Vegas Golden Knights 6, Florida Panthers 5 (SO)

Dallas Stars 4, Los Angeles Kings 3 (OT)

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.

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 Buzzer: Kucherov’s five point night; Bergeron, Kovalchuk with big returns

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Three Stars

1. Nikita Kucherov, Tampa Bay Lightning. The Tampa Bay Lightning look unstoppable right now. After their 6-3 win over the Edmonton Oilers on Saturday night they are still averaging more than four goals per game on the season and are 11-0-1 in their past 12 games (and also 16-2-1 in their past 19 games). Leading the way on Saturday night was Nikita Kucherov with a five-point night to give him 57 points in 37 games this season. That is a 126-point pace over 82 games. The five points is a new season-high for him and already the eighth time this season he has recorded at least three points in a game. He is now just two points back of Colorado Avalanche forward Mikko Rantanen (59 points) for the league lead in the scoring race.

2. Patrice Bergeron, Boston Bruins. What a difference he makes when he is on the ice. Patrice Bergeron returned to the Boston Bruins’ lineup on Saturday afternoon for the first time since November 14 and it was like he never left. He finished with a four-point performance (two goals, two assists) in a 5-2 win over the Nashville Predators and was his usual dominant self in all phases of the game. He is now up to 31 points in 20 games this season for a Bruins team that has been trying to stay afloat despite some brutal injury luck this season. Getting a healthy Bergeron back will obviously be a huge boost to that lineup.

3. Phillip Danault, Montreal Canadiens. Entering play on Saturday Montreal Canadiens forward Phillip Danault had not scored a goal in 11 consecutive games, had just one in his past 30, and just two for the entire season. He topped that season total with three goals in a 4-3 win over the Vegas Golden Knights. Given that he had scored just 10 goals since the start of the 2017-18 season, and only 27 in 223 career games, he is probably one of the most unlikely players to net a hat trick this season.

More big performances from Saturday

Jeff Skinner scored his 26th goal of the season for the Buffalo Sabres. That total is good enough for second place in the NHL behind only Washington Capitals forward Alex Ovechkin. He continues to play his way toward a huge contract in the coming months.

Roberto Luongo turned aside 33 shots for the Florida Panthers in a 2-1 win over the Detroit Red Wings.

Cam Atkinson scored two more goals for the Columbus Blue Jackets to help lift his team to a 4-3 win over the Philadelphia Flyers, handing rookie goalie Carter Hart his first NHL defeat.

Pheonix Copley, Laurent Brossoit, Matt Murray, and Linus Ullmark all recorded shutouts on Saturday.

David Perron had two points for the St. Louis Blues in a 3-1 win over the Calgary Flames.

Alexander Radulov had two points, including the game-winning goal with just 10 seconds to play in overtime, to help lift the Dallas Stars to a 2-1 win over the Minnesota Wild.

Mark Scheifele‘s 22nd goal of the season, which came with just under 1:30 to play in regulation, helped lift the Winnipeg Jets to a 1-0 win in Vancouver. It is his fifth game-winning goal of the season.

— Mitch Marner thought he had a hat trick for the Toronto Maple Leafs until one of the goals was awarded to Andreas Johnsson. He instead had to settle for two goals and an assist in a 5-3 win over the New York Rangers. Johnsson also had three points in the win.

— The Arizona Coyotes allowed a three-goal third period lead to slip away against the Colorado Avalanche but were able to rebound for a 6-4 win thanks to a pair of late goals from Brad Richardson — the game-winner with less than four minutes to play, and then an empty net goal to secure the win.

Steven Stamkos scored two goals for the Tampa Lightning and hit the 20 goal mark for the 10th time in his career. He is one of the best players in the league and is only the third leading scorer on the Lightning, a testament to how good and deep the Lightning roster currently is.

Highlights of the Night

This is what the Los Angeles Kings had in mind when they signed Ilya Kovalchuk over the summer. It has not worked out as planned so far, but he had his bet game of the season on Saturday afternoon in a 3-2 win over the San Jose Sharks by scoring two goals, including the game-winning goal in overtime.

The Sidney Crosby to Jake Guentzel connection is rolling in Pittsburgh. Guentzel scored two more goals on Saturday night in a 3-0 win over the Carolina Hurricanes, while Crosby picked up an assist on all three Penguins goals. The passing on Guentzel’s second goal was crisp.

Speaking of crisp passing, this John Tavares to Mitch Marner play is pretty great, too.

Factoids

Rasmus Dahlin scored a goal in the Buffalo Sabres’ 3-0 win over the Anaheim Ducks on Saturday night and is off to an incredible start to his career.

More on Ilya Kovalchuk’s big game for the Los Angeles Kings.

A perfect time for Pheonix Copley to record his first NHL shutout.

The Tampa Bay Lightning head to the holiday break as the best team in the NHL at the moment.

His team did not get the win, but Connor McDavid is still having yet another incredible season.

Scores

Boston Bruins 5, Nashville Predators 2

Columbus Blue Jackets 4, Philadelphia 3

Florida Panthers 2, Detroit Red Wings 1

Montreal Canadiens 4, Vegas Golden Knights 3

Los Angeles Kings 3, San Jose Sharks 2 (OT)

St. Louis Blues 3, Calgary Flames 1

Arizona Coyotes 6, Colorado Avalanche 4

Buffalo Sabres 3, Anaheim Ducks 0

Toronto Maple Leafs 5, New York Rangers 3

Washington Capitals 4, Ottawa Senators 0

Pittsburgh Penguins 3, Carolina Hurricanes 0

Dallas Stars 2, Minnesota Wild 1 (OT)

Winnipeg Jets 1, Vancouver Canucks 0

Tampa Bay Lightning 6, Edmonton Oilers 3

MORE: Your 2018-19 NHL on NBC TV 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.