For two hours and fifteen minutes on Saturday night, the Arizona Coyotes occupied a playoff spot.
A tidy 3-1 win against the Detroit Red Wings — their sixth straight win — had finally lifted them back into the top eight teams in the Western Conference. By nights’ end, however, a Minnesota Wild win over the Calgary Flames would punt them back out to the curb. But their appearance was enough to warn the rest of the teams battling it out for the two wildcard spots.
And they better take notice.
You see, while other teams in the race have plateaued or fallen out altogether, the Coyotes have mounted a convincing charge. Teams like the Anaheim Ducks, losers of their past five and most of their games since December, have nosedived. The Edmonton Oilers and the Vancouver Canucks are running out of gas. The Chicago Blackhawks’ surge appears to have stopped. And like a running back who’s seen the Red Sea parted before him, the Coyotes have kicked it into high gear while others have spun their tires.
Now, with 17 games between them, the Wild, the Dallas Stars and the Colorado Avalanche, they’ve gone four-abreast down into the final corner. Two will emerge with a playoff spot and the Coyotes, with their incredible goaltending as of late, and ability to take advantage of Grade-A, high-danger chances, have a real shot of being of one of the two.
Arizona’s unlikely streak began on Feb. 18 when they eeked out a 3-2 shootout win against the Edmonton Oilers while running on fumes after a 5-2 loss to the Flames a night earlier. Their next win two days later, by the same scoreline and in the same shootout scenario.
A couple days’ rest meant a rejuvenated team that walked over the Winnipeg Jets 4-1. They followed that up with another shootout win, another win against Vancouver and then their six straight against the Red Wings on Saturday.
From opening night until that Calgary loss, Arizona was in the middle of the pack in terms of possession, in the bottom third in five-on-five save percentage while giving up more high-danger chances then they created and more high-danger goals than they scored.
Those possession numbers haven’t changed much during their current heater. They hovered close to even during their first 59 games and have been dead on 50 percent over their past six.
What has changed is everything else mentioned after the possession stats.
Darcy Kuemper came in to play the second half of that back-to-back and hasn’t missed a game since. All-in-all, he’s been in the next for all six wins during the streak, has won seven in a row himself and nine of his past 10.
Arizona’s results have followed Kuemper’s play. For those first 59 games, the team’s save percentage was .912 in five-on-five situations — a number that has increased to .944 during their streak.
Those high-danger chances? Well, their percentage was at 46.57 through their first 59 contests. Since then, it’s risen over 14 percent to 60.83. Gone are the days of the Coyotes surrendering more Grade-A scoring chances than they could muster themselves.
Gone, also, are the days where they took such little advantage of the hard work it takes to create those high-danger opportunities. Arizona converted on those chances a paltry 37.40 percent of the time prior to Feb. 19. Since then, they’ve jumped over 30 percent to 69.23, allowing just four high-danger goals against to opponents over the course of their six-game winning streak.
For those not into the fancy numbers, the Coyotes have allowed just 11 goals in these past six games while scoring double that at 22.
Kuemper has been a beast, simply put. He’s thrown the Coyotes a lifeline and they’ve thanked him repeatedly with the run support in front of him.
Whether it’s sustainable down the stretch remains to be seen. The blueprint to success is clearly there, but they need to keep up the shot suppression and Kuemper to keep up the elite goaltending.
Put those two together for the remainder of the season and Coyotes will be back in the postseason.
Scott Billeck is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter @scottbilleck