Why there’s reason to believe in Coyotes

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When we last checked in with the Arizona Coyotes they had just dropped a 2-1 decision to the Minnesota Wild, had won just one of their first five games, and were off to what was quite literally one of the worst offensive starts in league history.

A lot has changed since then. In the five games since, the Coyotes have won four of them and are coming off of an especially impressive 7-1 demolition of the Tampa Bay Lightning, one of the league’s best teams and a consistent powerhouse, on Saturday night. They have put their slow offensive start behind them and scored at least three goals in all five games (including at least four goals in four of the games), have won all four games by at least three goals, and now have one of the 10 best goal differentials in the entire league.

Yes, this is an extremely small sampling of games, and yes there is always the potential that it could be a mirage. It is, after all, very early in the season and sometimes what you see here is not what you are going to get over the course of 82 games. But I am here to tell you that there are reasons to believe that this is not a mirage, and that the Coyotes are finally starting to put it together.

First, they have had a remarkably stingy defense to start the season. One of the best in the league, to be exact.

Even when they were losing over the first two weeks they had only surrendered 11 goals over those five games. For their season, their 2.00 goals against average per game is the best in the NHL. They are allowing just 28.2 shots on goal per game, the fourth best mark in the NHL. In terms of 5-on-5 shot attempt differential they are sixth in the league, as is their scoring chance differential.

In other words, they have been dictating the pace and pushing the play in all of their games, and in all of the key areas of the ice. What crushed them at the start was the simple fact that they could not actually put the puck in the net. And while they are probably never going to be a consistently great offense as currently constructed, they weren’t going to keep shooting at the laughably low 1.6 percent they had in those games, either. As long as they kept generating chances and shots (as they have) they were eventually going to see some positive reward for that. Lately, they have.

The biggest problem for the 2017-18 Coyotes was that they had an impossibly bad start that saw them lose their first 11 games, and 18 out of their first 20. By the middle of November they were already seven points behind the second-worst team in the standings (at the time the Buffalo Sabres) even though they had played in two additional games at that point. It was a hole they were never going to climb out of no matter what they did the rest of the way. At the center of that horrendous start was the fact they spent most of that time without starting goalie Antti Raanta as he was sidelined for most of the first month of the season, and then took a little bit of time to get back to 100 percent once he was able to return to the lineup. In his place was a revolving door of backups that, frankly, were not ready for NHL action. The results proved to be disastrous.

Once Raanta got back into the lineup the Coyotes were a fairly competitive team.

Over the final 62 games of the season they were 27-26-9, which comes out to around an 84-point pace over a full season.

Still not enough to get into the playoffs, but enough to be competitive.It was over the final 30 games where things really started to come together, finishing with a 17-10-3 record, and beating a lot of really good, playoff bound teams in the process. At times decisively. A lot of it was due to the play of Raanta, as he was sensational once he returned to health, but it showed just how much of a difference competent goaltending can make for a young, rebuilding team.

He has been just as good to start this season, and now the team in front of him is helping him out by limiting the number of shots and chances he has had to face. Together, it has been a great combination for the Coyotes and given them a chance to win every single night, even if it hasn’t always resulted in an actual win. This is the important thing: The process is starting to get there. They are doing the right things a team needs to do to win, mostly control the puck and outchance your opponent. Overall, the Coyotes have played 40 games since Feb. 6 and have a 22-15-3 record during that stretch. That’s a half-season worth of games where they have played at a 96-point pace. That gets you in the playoffs in almost every season.

They are also going to have a really good opportunity to continue this recent stretch and stack up some early season points as their next four games are against Ottawa, Carolina and back-to-back games against Philadelphia. That is a big opportunity they have to take advantage of.

Also working in their favor this season is the fact the Pacific Division is a mostly uninspiring pile of mediocrity.

The Ducks and Kings are both lousy, and even with a better than expected start the Canucks will no doubt soon join them. The Flames are completely underwhelming, and the Oilers are still a giant mystery that will probably only go as far as Connor McDavid can carry them. The Sharks are going to be at the top and Vegas will probably overcome it’s slow start and get back on track, but after that the entire division is completely wide open. Nearly one month into the season the Coyotes and Sharks are the only teams in the division that have actually outscored their opponents.

This is a team with an excellent goalie in Raanta, whose .922 save percentage is third in the NHL since the start of the 2013-14 season (among 44 goalies that have appeared in at least 140 games) behind only John Gibson and Corey Crawford, and a roster in front of him that is starting to play lockdown defense. That combination can carry a team a long way, even with a mediocre offense.

Now that Alex Galchenyuk is back in the lineup they have a respectable 1-2 punch down the middle with him and Derek Stepan, and an emerging top-line winger in Clayton Keller. They still need a player like Dylan Strome to take a big step forward to help solidify the offense, but as long as they keep shutting teams down the way they have and getting the goaltending they are getting from Raanta (and what backup Darcy Kuemper has given them so far) they are going to be a difficult team to deal with.

The process in terms of the way they are playing and playing the right way has been there from the start of the season.

The results are starting to follow.

(Shot attempt and scoring chance data via Natural Stat Trick)

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.

The Buzzer: Fischer’s hat trick lifts Coyotes, Price ties Roy, Saad arrives

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Three Stars

1. Christian Fischer, Arizona Coyotes. After a miserable start to the season where they could not find the back of the net no matter what they did, the Arizona Coyotes are starting to put it together a little. Their 4-1 win over the Columbus Blue Jackets on Tuesday night was their second in the past three games. While the return of Alex Galchenyuk should help, it was Christian Fischer playing the role of star in this one as he recorded the hat trick in the win to give him four goals on the season. Derek Stepan recorded the lone assist on all three goals. Dylan Strome scored the other goal on the night for Arizona as the Coyotes scored four consecutive goals to take the win and end their current road trip. They still have a ways to go, but it took them more than 20 games a season ago to win their third game of the season. Progress. There is talent here. Some patience is required.

2. Mika Zibanejad, New York Rangers. Entering play on Tuesday night there were only two teams in the NHL that had yet to win a game in regulation this season. They just so happened to be playing in New York when the Rangers hosted the Florida Panthers. It was the Rangers that ended up getting the win thanks in large part to Mika Zibanejad. He finished the game with three points, including two goals (one of two Rangers players — Mats Zuccarello being the other — to score two goals on the night) to help lift the Rangers to the win.

3. Brandon Saad, Chicago Blackhawks. Saad has been under the microscope in Chicago for two reasons: First, he simply has not played well since returning to the Blackhawks at the start of the 2017-18 season. Second, the guy that was traded for him — Artemi Panarin — has continued to be a star in Columbus and has been one of the best players in the league. The Blackhawks have said they need, and want, more from Saad and on Tuesday night they finally got it. He scored a pair of goals, including one on the power play, an area where he struggled mightily a year ago, to help lead the Blackhawks to a 3-1 win over the Anaheim Ducks.

Southern California’s hockey teams are not having fun

The Anaheim Ducks and Los Angeles Kings are not off to good starts. At all. The Kings have been a mess all season and dropped yet another game on Tuesday, losing in Dallas by a 4-2 margin. They are now the worst team in the Western Conference through nine games and just keep looking like a team that needs a fresh start and a new direction. This group is just not working anymore.

Meanwhile, the Ducks’ record looks better but the actual play on the ice doesn’t. Starting goalie John Gibson was great once again on Tuesday night, turning aside 36 out of 38 shots. It is the fifth time this season he has made at least 36 saves in a game. He has allowed more than two goals in just one of those five games. His team has only managed to win one of those five games. He has been amazing, and perhaps the most impressive player in the league so far. The team in front of him, not so much.

The Burns-Karlsson connection clicks for San Jose

San Jose’s two Norris Trophy winning defensemen teamed up for the game-winning goal in Nashville on Tuesday night as the Sharks erased two-goal third period deficit to storm back for a 5-4 win.

Read all about it and see all of the highlights here.

Highlights of the Night

The Boston Bruins’ top line of Patrice Bergeron, Brad Marchand, and David Pastrnak is arguably the best line in the NHL. They dominated again on Tuesday night in Ottawa and this play by Marchand to set up Pastrnak for his second goal of the game was a thing of beauty.

Sidney Crosby did this thing in overtime, making an emphatic statement in the best player debate that has been taking place so far this season.

Factoids

The Montreal Canadiens continue to be a surprise team and Carey Price continues to play well. These two things are related. Speaking of Carey Price, Tuesday’s win was a big one for him as it continues to move him up the Canadiens’ all-time wins list, tying him with a very important player.

Scores

Arizona Coyotes 4, Columbus Blue Jackets 1

New York Rangers 5, Florida Panthers 2

Montreal Canadiens 3, Calgary Flames 2

Boston Bruins 4, Ottawa Senators 1

San Jose Sharks 5, Nashville Predators 4

Chicago Blackhawks 3, Anaheim Ducks 1

Dallas Stars 4, Los Angeles Kings 2

Pittsburgh Penguins 6, Edmonton Oilers 5 (OT)

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.

Galchenyuk could really tie Coyotes’ offense together

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Seth Jones is not the only returning player worth watching as the Columbus Blue Jackets take on the Arizona Coyotes on Tuesday night.

While the Blue Jackets will see their Norris-caliber defenseman make his season debut, Alex Galchenyuk will finally play his first regular-season game for the Coyotes.

Late in the preseason, Galchenyuk suffered a lower-body injury that sidelined him on a week-to-week basis, forcing the slick scorer to miss Arizona’s first seven games. The concern was that, once again, the Coyotes would begin the season on a down note. With a 2-5-0 record and, somehow, just 11 goals scored through seven games, such concerns ended up being justified.

Injecting Galchenyuk’s scoring ability into that lineup could mean a big boost.

No, he’s not the sort of tide-changing star who would lift Arizona into the scoring stratosphere, but Galchenyuk is a one-time 30-goal scorer, has another 20-goal season on his resume, and has reached 50+ points twice in his career. Not bad for a 24-year-old who will surely enter this season with a chip on his shoulder (and likely a refreshed feeling after exiting a toxic situation in Montreal).

Let’s go over why Galchenyuk’s addition could be big for the Coyotes:

Some help for Keller

Clayton Keller probably feels some empathy for Islanders wunderkind Mathew Barzal, as both have been asked to carry a huge burden of scoring for their teams entering sophomore seasons.

Players of any age can use someone who thinks the game at a higher level like them, and opens up space with smarts, skill, and finishing ability. Such a synthesis is plausible for Keller – Galchenyuk, whether that requires a few shifts or a few games to come to fruition.

With a big body like Lawson Crouse to – ideally – do some of the dirty work, and maybe shovel in some goals in front of the net, this could be a nice little scoring line.

Finishing touch on the power play, and in general

Circling back, the Coyotes created their fair share of chances, even during the early parts of their historically bad start. So far this season, the Coyotes suffer from easily the worst even-strength shooting percentage, connecting on just 2.96-percent of their shots on goal, according to Natural Stat Trick. No other team is under Anaheim’s 4.58-percent mark.

Oh yeah, they haven’t been much luckier on the power play, either, with their 10.5-percent success rate ranking second-worst in the NHL.

Again, Galchenyuk isn’t just going to sprinkle pixie dust all over these problems and make them go away by himself.

Still, his skill adds what could be some crucial finishing touch to a group that needs it at all levels. Galchenyuk has hit nine power-play goals twice in his career, and 30 of his 108 career tallies have come via the man advantage.

Left Wing Lock’s listings have Arizona’s top power-play unit as Galchenyuk, Keller, Derek Stepan, Dylan Strome, and Oliver Ekman-Larsson. Such a group won’t send the Capitals, Maple Leafs, and other high-end 5-on-4 groups tumbling down the stats leaders, but it could very well make special teams a coin-flip, rather than a disadvantage for the Coyotes.

Demoted to your level of competence

When you get a player back from injury, pieces can fall into more natural places. Even if Galchenyuk isn’t quite a top-line center (a genuine possibility), he might be able to help the Coyotes open up advantages at different levels.

For one thing, Derek Stepan probably makes more sense as a second-line or 1b center.

Stepan probably deserves more respect than he sometimes receives; five of his last six seasons were 50+ points, and he generated nearly a point-per-game the year he missed (ah, the streak-killing menace that was the lockout-shortened 2012-13 season …).

With zero goals and one assist so far this season, Stepan was really fighting it. Maybe he was straining to play above his means? It’s plausible that he’ll return to that 20-ish goal, 50+ point pace with a little less weight on his shoulders.

***

Viewing Galchenyuk as a savior is wrong.

If the Coyotes climb in a big way, it will be as much about finally getting the bounces they haven’t been receiving all that often this season.

Still, consider Galchenyuk as an extra paddle on that pinball machine, possibly moving that random luck in the right direction. At worst, it should be fun to see him create offense alongside a brilliant young forward in Clayton Keller.

MORE: Your 2018-19 NHL on NBC TV 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.

WATCH LIVE: Coyotes visit Wild on NBCSN

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NBC’s coverage of the 2018-19 NHL season continues with Tuesday night’s matchup between the Arizona Coyotes and Minnesota Wild at 8 p.m. ET. You can watch the game online and on the NBC Sports App by clicking here.

As they look to stop their slow start to the season, the Arizona Coyotes received good news on Tuesday. Alex Galchenyuk, who’s get to play this season since being acquired over the summer from the Montreal Canadiens, practiced with his teammates for the first time since suffering an injury during preseason.

Galchenyuk will likely take over No. 1 duties when he’s completely healthy. For now, he’s been cleared for contact but there’s no timetable for a return.

The Wild traveled home after Monday’s 4-2 loss to the Nashville Predators staring at a 1-2-2 record and last place in the Central Division. Head coach Bruce Boudreau emphasized the imporatance of putting together a few wins together, especially with a weekend back-to-back away at Dallas and at home against Tampa Bay.

“If you look at our schedule, we have to get to .500 quick, and then you have to start moving above .500 if you want to stay in this race,” he said.

What: Arizona Coyotes at Minnesota Wild
Where: Xcel Energy Center
When: Tuesday, October 16th, 8 p.m. ET
TV: NBCSN
Live stream: You can watch the Coyotes-Wild stream on NBC Sports’ live stream page and the NBC Sports app.

PROJECTED LINEUPS

Coyotes
Richard PanikDerek StepanClayton Keller
Lawson CrouseDylan StromeChristian Fischer
Michael GrabnerBrad RichardsonNick Cousins
Brendan PerliniJosh ArchibaldVincent Hinostroza

Oliver Ekman-LarssonJason Demers
Alex GoligoskiJordan Oesterle
Kevin ConnautonNiklas Hjalmarsson

Starting goalie: Darcy Kuemper

[WATCH LIVE – 8 P.M. ET – NBCSN]

Wild
Jason ZuckerEric StaalJordan Greenway
Zach PariseMikko KoivuMikael Granlund
Nino NiederreiterEric FehrCharlie Coyle
Marcus FolignoMatt HendricksJ.T. Brown

Ryan SuterMatt Dumba
Jonas BrodinJared Spurgeon
Nick SeelerGreg Pateryn

Starting goalie: Devan Dubnyk

MORE: Your 2018-19 NHL on NBC TV schedule

NHL on NBCSN: Coyotes hoping goals start coming as they visit Wild

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NBC’s coverage of the 2018-19 NHL season continues with Tuesday night’s matchup between the Arizona Coyotes and Minnesota Wild at 8 p.m. ET. You can watch the game online and on the NBC Sports App by clicking here.

Through the first two weeks of the 2018-19 NHL season, the Arizona Coyotes have had a big issue scoring goals. Getting shots on net hasn’t been an issue at all having averaged 36.5 shots per game so far. Finding a way to beat opposing goalies has been the challenge as they’ve been shutout three times already.

The Coyotes have zero even strength goals this season. Brad Richardson’s goal came shorthanded and Dylan Strome’s was on a power play. They begin a four-game road trip Tuesday night in Minnesota (8 p.m. ET; NBCSN) hoping the dam finally breaks.

And goal scoring is really the only issue for the Coyotes at the moment. They’re controlling play with a 60 percent Corsi, per Natural Stat Trick, to show for it and have had no issue hitting the 30-shot mark every night. Goaltender Antti Raanta hit the nail on the head after Saturday’s 3-0 loss to the Buffalo Sabres in saying that they’re making opposing goalies look real good.

“There’s the odds of it if you just keep doing the same things,” said Coyotes head coach Rick Tocchet via the Arizona Republic. “Obviously there’s things we can get better at, but we’re obviously not giving up much. It’s just the offensive part, and sometimes to score it has to be uncomfortable.”

[WATCH LIVE – 8 P.M. ET – NBCSN]

If there’s a time for goals to come for the Coyotes, it’s against the Wild, who are coming off a 4-2 loss to the Nashville Predators on Monday night. The game will be the first for Arizona against an opponent in the second half of a back-to-back. Add in travel back home from Music City and you’re talking about a tired Minnesota team that’s lost four of their last five games.

The Wild have had no issue scoring, showing off plenty of balance, but they’ve lost the possession game more often than not and have seen mistakes, such as the pair that led to goals from Mattias Ekholm and Filip Forsberg Monday night, cost them dearly.

MORE: Your 2018-19 NHL on NBC TV schedule

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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.