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.