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Improved Coyotes in Playoff Spot at All-Star Break

by Dave Vest / Arizona Coyotes

GLENDALE – The NHL’s All-Star Break officially began Thursday and the Coyotes collectively hit the pause button for a nice, little hiatus. They will reconvene for practice on Monday and then resume their game schedule with a home tilt vs. Los Angeles on Tuesday night. It will be the start of a 33-game grind crunched into 68 days to end the regular season.

Arizona (24-20-5) entered the break in third place in the Pacific Division standings with 53 points. Thus, if the postseason started today, the Coyotes would qualify for a berth in the Stanley Cup Playoffs. Clearly the playoffs do not begin today, but being among the teams holding a playoff spot at this point in the season is a huge plus with regards to team morale.

“We’re part of that pack,” General Manager Don Maloney told SiriusXM NHL Radio this week. “It’s nice to be having a conversation towards the end of January talking about playoff possibilities… It’s really an accomplishment for the players and the coaches to keep us around. We’ve got a long way to go, but we’ve been competitive… and that’s a sign of good things to come, I hope.”

The Coyotes have already matched their victory total from all of last season, and they have thrived vs. Pacific Division opponents thus far having posted an 11-2-2 record. They will need to keep that going after the break when they play 14 more games within the division.

The Los Angeles Kings are atop the division with 63 points, but second-place San Jose and last-place Edmonton are separated by just 13 points, and several Pacific teams are surging.

San Jose, which has 56 points, entered the break with an 8-2-2 record in January and will look to continue its 10-game point streak when play resumes. After a dismal start, Anaheim has rallied lately with a 7-3-1 record this month and has 51 points. So does Vancouver, which posted a 6-3-3 mark in January.

Arizona has placed itself within the playoff pack because of several reasons. First and foremost, rookies Max Domi, Anthony Duclair, Jordan Martinook, Klas Dahlbeck and Louis Domingue have provided enthusiasm and steady play in their first full NHL seasons.

“We’ve played better this year,” Head Coach Dave Tippett said. “Our young players are helping grow this organization. There’s lots of learning to do yet but they’re competitive in every game, and they want to do well and they want to learn, so it’s a step in the right direction.”

Domi and Duclair rank fourth and fifth among NHL rookies in points with 32 and 25, respectively. Martinook has provided solid defense/penalty killing and has chipped in five goals and 11 assists. Dahlbeck leads the team with 124 hits. And Domingue has filled in for injured goalie Mike Smith in superb fashion with a 9-3-3 record in 15 starts.

“Louis has done a terrific job to date and we need him to continue to do so even when Mike returns,” Maloney said.

Smith, who underwent core muscle surgery in December, began skating and taking shots away from teammates not long ago and could begin practicing with them as soon as next week. Maloney said Smith could return to game action “sometime in February.”

Shane Doan also has played a major role in the team’s success. The 39-year-old captain has notched a team-high 17 goals in 40 games and, per usual, has displayed superior leadership skills on a team with many young players.

The Coyotes have six skaters – Doan (17), Oliver Ekman-Larsson (14), Duclair (13), Domi (13), Mikkel Boedker (12) and Tobias Rieder (10) – who have scored at least 10 goals. That has lightened the load on Doan to provide offense.

“Now we don’t need Shane to do all of the heavy lifting, he can just kind of come in and be a player for us,” Maloney said. “I think Shane has kind of grabbed a hold of some of the energy that we’ve had on our team… I think he’s been rejuvenated.”

Once the season resumes, Doan will continue to chase a pair of significant franchise milestones. With 925 points, he needs just four to tie Dale Hawerchuk for most points in Coyotes/Jets history. He also needs just one power-play goal to tie Hawerchuk for that record; Doan has 121, Hawerchuk has 122.

Doan said he’s proud of the way the Coyotes performed in the first 49 games and that he expects them to remain a playoff contender for the rest of the season.

There are two keys to that happening, he recently told Arizona Sports 98.7 FM, the team’s flagship radio station.

“Our specialty teams have to get better,” Doan said. “If we can get our specialty teams better, that will give us a way better chance of having more success. And we’ve gotten contributions from everybody, and that’s huge, and that’s going to have to continue. If those two things happen, we’re going to be OK.”

Arizona ranks 17th in the NHL in power-play efficiency (17.8 percent), and it ranks 28th in penalty killing (76.6 percent).

Here are some other reasons why the Coyotes are in playoff position at the All-Star Break:

• Arizona ranks second in the NHL in face-off winning percentage, 0.2 percent behind first-place Carolina. Centers Boyd Gordon (57.3 percent), Antoine Vermette (54.8 percent) and Martin Hanzal (54.7 percent) are the key contributors.

• The Coyotes have scored 130 goals, which ranks 11th in the NHL. At that pace, they will far surpass the 165 goals they scored all of last season.

• Ekman-Larsson co-leads the team with 34 points, sixth most among NHL defensemen, and is tied for second among defensemen with 14 goals. Moreover, only two players – San Jose forward Joe Pavelski (eight) and Chicago forward Jonathan Toews (seven) – have scored more game-winning goals than Ekman-Larsson (six).

• Boedker has rebounded nicely from an injury-shortened season a year ago. He co-leads the team with 34 points, and leads the team with 22 assists. He also has notched 12 goals, including two hat tricks, both vs. the Ottawa Senators.

• Regarding hat tricks, the Coyotes have five this season, the most by any NHL team. The franchise record for hat tricks in one season is seven set in 1986-87 and 1991-92. This season’s hat-trickers are: Boedker (twice), Duclair, Doan and Domi.

Arizona has not reached the Stanley Cup Playoffs since the 2011-12 season, and the NHL trade deadline is set for Feb. 29.

“You look at the standings and they are just so tight right through,” Maloney said. “So it’s very hard a month out to say ‘Well, we’re going to be a buyer’ or ‘We’re going to be a seller.’ But there’s one thing I am adamant about. We’ve been able to take a step forward by introducing young people into our team. The last thing I’m going to do is acquire two or three or four veteran players to push our young guys out of the lineup. That’s not going to happen. However, we’re always looking to improve and you always like to help your club… and if there’s some deal out there that makes long-term sense, sure we have to look at it. But I think we’re no different than 20 other clubs. It’s too early to say whether we’re in a position to add or subtract, and, quite frankly, it’s going to be the same conversation a month from now. It will be this tight all the way through.”

And because the race to the postseason will continue to be so congested, Maloney said it’s imperative the team’s key veterans – such as Doan, Hanzal, Ekman-Larsson, Boedker and Vermette – drive the group during the stretch run.

“We need our veterans to lead the pack now,” Maloney said. “… Staying in the hunt for as long as we can and getting to the playoffs would be absolutely great for us. That’s our goal this year.”

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