Antti Raanta

What’s driving Coyotes’ fast start, and how can they maintain it?

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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.

 

Stunning numbers on Flyers, Penguins, Coyotes, and more

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During the 2019-20 NHL season we will take an occasional look at some stunning numbers from around the league. Here is what stood out to us through the first two months of the season. 

The Flyers’ best start since … Eric Lindros played?! This, to me, is literally stunning. The Philadelphia Flyers started December with 35 points, which is their highest point total at the start of the month since the 1995-96 season. That stat comes via NBC Philadelphia’s Jordan Hall. Not sure if this says more about the Flyers’ 2019-20 performance, or the Flyers’ performance between 1996 and 2019.

McDavid and Draisaitl’s dominance. It would not be a stunning numbers update if we did not look at the performance of Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl out in Edmonton because everything about these two is completely stunning. They are both at the 50-point mark entering play on Tuesday and are No’s. 1 and 2 in the scoring race. No other players in the league have more than 43 points so far this season. The only other Oilers players in franchise history to hit 50 points through December 1 are Wayne Gretzky and Jari Kurri. No other player on the current Oilers team has more than 19 points this season. These two are the offense.

The Penguins’ absurd injury run. With Sidney Crosby, Bryan Rust, Brian Dumoulin, Justin Schultz, and Nick Bjugstad all currently sidelined, the Penguins have more than $25 million in salary cap space sitting in the press box. That represents more than 30 percent of their total salary cap number. Since the start of the season the Penguins have lost 85 man games (and counting) to injuries to Crosby, Rust, Dumoulin, Schultz, Bjugstad, Evgeni Malkin, Kris Letang, Alex Galchenyuk, Patric Hornqvist, and Jared McCann. It is incredible they are still in a playoff position and played as well as they have.

Quick’s continued decline: The Kings were hoping that Jonathan Quick could bounce back from his brutal 2018-19 performance, but he has been just as bad this season. Since the start of last season he has managed only an .888 save percentage. Among goalies with at least 45 starts during that stretch, that is the worst mark in the league. San Jose’s Martin Jones is the only other goalie with sub-.900 save percentage.

Darcy Kuemper is Arizona’s MVP: In February, 2018, the Arizona Coyotes traded Tobias Rieder and Scott Wedgewood to the Los Angeles Kings for backup goalie Darcy Kuemper. It was a trade that probably snuck under your radar. It is also a trade that might get the 2019-20 Coyotes back in the playoffs. Since arriving in Arizona Kuemper has been one of the league’s most productive goalies, owning a .924 all situations save percentage. Of the 55 goalies that have logged at least 2,000 minutes of ice-time since then, that number places Kuemper sixth in the entire league. His goalie partner in Arizona, Antti Raanta, is fifth (Kuemper has played more nearly 5,000 minutes, while injuries have limited Raanta to just a little over 2,000 minutes). They are one of the best goalie duos in the league, right up there with Boston (Tuukka Rask and Jaroslav Halak), Dallas (Ben Bishop and Anton Khudobin), and New York (Thomas Greiss and Semyon Varlamov).

Cale Makar is better than advertised. The Colorado Avalanche top forwards are incredible, and when the trio of Nathan MacKinnon, Mikko Rantanen, and Gabriel Landeskog is healthy and together they are borderline unstoppable. But what is really exciting about the Avalanche and the biggest reason they have emerged as one of the rising NHL powers is the development of their young defense, specifically Cale Makar. He is averaging a point-per-game so far this season (26 points, 26 games) and is off to one of the best starts ever for a rookie defensemen. Since 1979-80 the only defender with more points through his team’s first 26 games was Larry Murphy, who had 29 points in 26 games for the 1980-81 Los Angeles Kings. Combined with Sam Girard and 2019 No. 4 overall pick Bowen Byram the Avalanche have a trio of young defenders that will shape their blue line for a decade or more.

Blues keep rolling. No Vladimir Tarasenko, no problem for the Blues. Since their top forward and most impactful player was sidelined with an injury, the Blues have managed to go on a 13-3-3 run. Leading the way for the Blues offense is David Perron, who is off to one of the best starts of his career with 28 points in 29 games, including five game-winning goals.

Red Wings’ struggles. The Detroit Red Wings have a minus-56 goal differential entering play on Tuesday. The next worst team (New Jersey Devils) is only at minus-31. That goal differential through 30 games is the 23rd worst in the history of the league and the worst since the 1993-94 Ottawa Senators.

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: Garland, Raanta help Coyotes roll; Capitals stay hot

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Three Stars

1. Antti Raanta, Coyotes

The Arizona goaltender earned his first shutout of the season and 12th of his career with a 31-save performance during a 3-0 win over the Los Angeles Kings. Power play goals from Derek Stepan and Jakob Chychrun helped power the Coyotes to their fourth win in five games. The win puts them now one point behind the Oilers for the Pacific Division lead.

2. Braden Holtby, Capitals

The Capitals netminder was kept busy during a 5-2 victory over the Anaheim Ducks. Holtby made 32 saves, which included 25 stops in the final 40 minutes. Washington has now won their last seven games that Holtby has started and 10 of their last 11 with him in net. He also passed the 25,000 career minute mark to join Olaf Kolzig as the only goalies in franchise history to hit that number. John Carlson picked up two assists and now has 11 multi-point games this season.

3. Conor Garland, Coyotes

Garland was one of three Coyotes with multi-point nights (Christian Dvorak and Nick Schmaltz the others) as he netted a goal and an assist in the victory. He now has three goals in his last four games is up to 10 goals and 14 points through 22 games this season. In 47 games a year ago, Garland recorded 13 goals and 18 points.

Hathaway ejected for spitting

A late second period melee sparked by a Brendan Leipsic hit on Derek Grant saw several fights break out as Chandler Stephenson scored. Capitals forward Garnet Hathaway ended up tangled with Erik Gudbranson and was given a five-minute match penalty for spitting at the Ducks’ defenseman. Hathaway could face further punishment from the NHL in the form of a fine or suspension.

Hockey Hall of Fame class of 2019 inducted

Guy Carbonneau, Vaclav Nedomansky, Hayley Wickenheiser, Sergei Zubov, Jerry York, and Jim Rutherford were inducted Monday night in Toronto.

Highlights of the Night

Alex Ovechkin was left open in his favorite spot on a power play. Guess what happened next?

• Sweet spinning pass from Dvorak to set up Garland’s goal:

• With the game in Arizona, the Coyotes decided to troll the Kings by unveiling a Taylor Swift banner (backstory here). How did that go over with LA? Well…

Factoid of the Night

Scores
Capitals 5, Ducks 2
Coyotes 3, Kings 0

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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.

Coyotes cough up 3-0 lead, but end Capitals’ winning streak

The Arizona Coyotes can’t feel happy about giving up yet another lead (this time a 3-0 advantage), but they were able to salvage a 4-3 shootout win against the Washington Capitals on Monday — albeit barely.

Upon further review

When the Capitals made it 3-3, it was awkwardly funny, as Evgeny Kuznetsov appeared a breath away from scoring a hat trick goal to tie things up. Instead, T.J. Oshie got to the puck first. Would it have been the same difference if Kuznetsov was shooting rather than Oshie? Probably, yet when a standings point (or two) end up on the line, it’s better not to leave anything to doubt. All the laughing on the bench underscored the mixed feelings, and served up a reminder of the “passing to a teammate so they can score the empty-netter” culture of the sport.

It looked like Oshie would then match Kuznetsov with two goals on the night when Oshie scored in overtime — only he didn’t.

The NHL’s review determined that the play was offside, as wires got crossed between Oshie and Lars Eller when Eller lost his footing close to the Coyotes’ blueline. This was the second review that didn’t go Washington’s way on Monday, as an Ilya Samsonov save instead turned out to be a Christian Fischer goal.

That’s how close it really was for Washington. They almost extended their winning streak to seven games, even though the Coyotes generated that 3-0 lead.

On the bright side, there were moments where the bounces did go the Capitals’ way. When the Coyotes were really pouring things on, they fired another breakout pass behind Washington’s defense to Clayton Keller, a soon-to-be $7.15 million player who already scored the game’s first goal. Keller might be “elite in every sense of the word,” but Samsonov showed the agility and patience to wait Keller out, and Keller didn’t even end up with a shot attempt on that breakaway opportunity.

So, it stings for the Capitals to lose in such an anticlimactic fashion, but the “what if?” game could go both ways. Finishing the night at 13-2-4 isn’t really so bad for this quietly dominant team.

Playing with fire when you play with leads

There’s an almost inevitable question when a team squanders a lead, or even comes close to squandering a lead: was this about the Capitals turning it up a notch, or are the Coyotes guilty of sitting on a lead?

It’s a point that’s relevant to the Coyotes, in particular. For one thing, they sometimes lean heavily on goalies, especially when it’s red-hot Darcy Kuemper. (In Monday’s case, Antti Raanta was mostly sharp even as he seems to settle into a backup role.)

The question is also especially pertinent right now, as the Coyotes have given up leads in five consecutive games. Winning the shootout bailed Arizona out on Monday, but they might not always be so lucky, especially when the leads are slimmer than three goals. Perhaps they need to do some soul searching about finding a better balance between avoiding back-breaking mistakes and getting to passive in “turtle mode.”

To be fair, the Capitals have been a tough team to keep down. They’re now 4-1-2 in games where they’ve trailed after the first period.

Kuznetsov on fire

Evgeny Kuznetsov didn’t get that hat trick, despite hats mucking up the ice in DC. He’s still on quite the roll lately. With two goals on Monday, Kuznetsov has a four-game multipoint streak going (three goals, six assists for nine points). That also gives him 18 points in 16 games so far in 2019-20, as he’s clearly shaken off that suspension.

***

The Capitals became the first team in the NHL to hit 30 points this season, sliding to 13-2-4. The Coyotes ended a three-game losing streak and are now 10-6-2. Both teams showed flashes of brilliance while also waving a few red flags of warning about blemishes they need to clean up.

MORE:
• Pro Hockey Talk’s Stanley Cup picks.
• Your 2019-20 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.

The Buzzer: Draisaitl takes over league lead in goals, points

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Three Stars

1. Leon Draisaitl, Edmonton Oilers. He is doing his best to show that his 50-goal, 100-point season from a year ago was no fluke. With two goals and an assist in the Oilers’ 4-1 win over the Columbus Blue Jackets on Wednesday night Draisaitl is now tied for the league lead in goals (12, along with Boston’s David Pastrnak) and is in sole possession of the top spot in points with 25. If you like to have fun with early season “on pace for” numbers those put him on track for 70 goals and 145 points over 82 games. Obviously he will slow down at some point, but what a start for the Oilers and their top forwards.

2. Brock Boeser, Vancouver Canucks. An absolutely massive game for the Canucks’ top young players as they crushed the Los Angeles Kings — again — this season. Boeser was the big star on the night with three goals and an assist in the win. He is now up to seven goals and 14 total points this season. Boeser, Elias Pettersson, and Quinn Hughes give the Canucks quite a trio of young stars to build around, and they all shined on Wednesday.

3. Jonathan Huberdeau, Florida Panthers. With eight minutes to play in regulation the Panthers found themselves trailing by two goals in Colorado. It was at that point that their stars took over. Aleksander Barkov scored his first goal of the season to bring the Panthers to within one, and then Huberdeau tied it with 1:30 to play and the goalie pulled for an extra attacker. As if that was not enough, Huberdeau won it just 29 seconds into overtime to give the Panthers a huge two points. The Panthers have earned at least a point in nine of their past 10 games.

Other notable performances from Wednesday

Highlights of the Night

This shot from Elias Pettersson is a thing of beauty. You can not place the puck in a better spot. A totally unstoppable shot.

Here is Huberdeau’s game-winner for the Panthers.

At least the Devils had this going for them on Wednesday. Kyle Palmieri scored three goals in the loss, with the third goal coming in the final 10 seconds to tie the game and send it to overtime.

Blooper of the Night

It was a tough night for Arizona Coyotes goalie Antti Raanta, and nothing illustrated that more than him losing a skate blade and allowing Montreal Canadiens defenseman Shea Weber to score an easy goal from the blue line.

Factoids

  • Boeser is the fifth player in Canucks history to record at least three hat tricks before their 23rd birthday. [NHL PR]
  • Anze Kopitar became the fifth player in Kings history to record 900 career regular season points. [NHL PR]
  • Nathan MacKinnon extended his season opening point streak to 12 consecutive games, the fifth player in the past 20 years to accomplish that feat. [NHL PR]
  • Tampa Bay’s come-from-behind win on Wednesday was the 12th multi-goal third period come-from-behind win of the season, the most in NHL history through the first 193 games of the season. [NHL PR]
  • James Neal scored his 11th goal of the season for the Oilers, meaning he and Draisaitl are just the fourth set of teammates in NHL history to each score at least 11 goals in the month of October. They are the first to do it since Mario Lemieux and Kevin Stevens for the 1991-92 Pittsburgh Penguins. [NHL PR]

Scores

Tampa Bay Lightning 7, New Jersey Devils 6 (OT)
Edmonton Oilers 4, Columbus Blue Jackets 1
St. Louis Blues 2, Minnesota Wild 1
Montreal Canadiens 4, Arizona Coyotes 1
Florida Panthers 4, Colorado Avalanche 3 (OT)
Vancouver Canucks 5, Los Angeles Kings 3

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.