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Nine-Game Gauntlet: Critical Road Trip for Coyotes

Arizona remains in thick of West Division playoff race

by Alex Kinkopf @AEKinkopf / Arizona Coyotes

Fifteen days. Five cities. Nine games.

Phil Kessel says the road trip might define the entire Coyotes season. 

"We've got to battle through it," Kessel said. "Nine games in 15 days is a lot. Hopefully we can keep playing well."

The Coyotes begin the trip with a three-game win streak; they have won four of their previous five games, scoring 20 goals. Kessel has been a major factor. He has a five-game point streak and has scored five goals during the win streak - including his seventh career hat trick Saturday night.

The nine-game stretch away from home is the longest of the season for the Coyotes, who begin their journey with a 6-6-2 road record. They will not return home until April 15, when they land at Sky Harbor Airport following their seventh flight of the trip.

Head coach Rick Tocchet will be "dressed to the nines."

"It took me 45 minutes to pack last night," Tocchet said. "No lie. Nine dress shirts just in case I spill a couple coffees. Ready to go." 

Tocchet, however, isn't opposed to recycling a shirt, if it brings the team some luck.

"There might be a repeater if we win a game," he said. "I'm not superstitious, though." 

The Coyotes are on the cusp of claiming the fourth and final playoff spot in the West Division. They sit one point (37) behind the St. Louis Blues (38). Both teams have played 35 games.

The Blues play 17 of their final 21 games against the top three West Division teams: Minnesota (seven games), Colorado (six games) and Vegas (four games).

The Coyotes play 11 of their final 21 games against the bottom three West Division teams: Los Angeles (5 games), San Jose (4 games) and Anaheim (2 games).

Arizona, however, will face a couple West Division heavyweights on the road trip, the second place Colorado Avalanche and first place Vegas Golden Knights. 

Tocchet is cautious when it comes to scoreboard watching.

"I know it's hard," Tocchet said. "Everybody likes to scoreboard watch and look at the standings, that's human nature, but I just try to keep the guys focused on Wednesday night. You can't worry about anything after that. And then we'll just keep chipping away at that kind of mentality."

Alternate captain Derick Brassard, a veteran of 117 postseason games, knows all about tight playoff races. 

"Everyone looks at the standings every day," Brassard said. "But at the end of the day, you've just got to focus on your game and what you can control. If we get help, good. We can aim (for) third place as well. Minnesota is reachable. It's going to be tight all the way until the end of the season. If we play our game, I like our chances.

Brassard spoke more particularly about the upcoming road gauntlet: "There's a month left in the season. It's a really important road trip for our team. We play every second day, we have back-to-back games. So, it's not like we're going to be sitting in a hotel doing nothing. We're going to be busy. We're going to be busy recovering and trying to bring high energy because we're going to be playing a lot of games."

Clayton Keller claimed the team scoring lead (28 points) Saturday night, and reacted to the team's victories in three of four games at Gila River Arena. 

"It was a good home stand, (a few wins)." Keller said. "I think everyone's excited to get on the road. It's a long road trip. They're fun. You spend a lot of time together. I think the team can really come together here. It's going to be an important road trip for us." 

Adin Hill is coming off his second career shutout and has three straight wins entering the trip. Hill is the Coyotes' No. 1 goaltender while Antti Raanta and Darcy Kuemper remain on injured reserve.

"You have to remember (Hill) didn't play for a year and now he's our starting goaltender," Tocchet said. "He's been battling for us, he's unflappable." 

Hill has not allowed a 5-on-5 goal over the last 139:32. His play has been stellar, but Tocchet knows the demanding road trip could force the Coyotes to lean on prospect Ivan Prosvetov, who has yet to start an NHL game.

"Hilly can't play nine straight games in a row," Tocchet said. "I'd never say never, but that would be a really tall order. So, we've got to make sure that we manage the right time to get (Prosvetov), or whoever's healthy, to play. We've got to worry about Colorado, and then we'll go from there. I haven't really mapped out a plan, but obviously Hilly's going to get a lot of games."

The length of the trip demands a special focus off-ice, too, or maybe especially, Tocchet noted.

"We've got a couple things planned, it's 15 days," Tocchet said. "We've got a couple events we're going to do (as a team), obviously protocol safe. I think we'll have to (try) to get our minds off hockey a bit. That last road trip, we were really isolated and I just felt there were parts when guys were really tense. We learned our lesson. We're going to try to do more team things.

"But saying that, to me it's one game at a time. I know it's the old cliché. But just worry about Colorado."

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Lead Photo Credit: Michael Martin - NHLI via Getty Images // Second Photo Credit: Scott Rovak - NHLI via Getty Images // Third Photo Credit: Debora Robinson - NHLI via Getty Images // Fourth Photo Credit: Michael Martin - NHLI via Getty Images

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