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Coyotes 'feel like a playoff team,' Stepan says

Addition of Kessel, return of Schmaltz have Arizona thinking big early in season

by Dan Rosen @drosennhl / Senior Writer

NEW YORK -- Derek Stepan hesitated because he didn't want to get too far ahead of himself by talking about the Stanley Cup Playoffs in October.

But the Arizona Coyotes center eventually couldn't contain his optimism.

"As of right now we have the machine oiled well," Stepan said following practice at Madison Square Garden on Monday. "When I first got to Arizona it was like, 'OK, which direction are we going in?' Now the ship is moving pretty quickly in the right direction. So, yes, I would tell you that it does feel like a playoff team."

The Coyotes (4-2-1) haven't made the playoffs since the 2011-12 season, but since then they also haven't been as fast and as deep up front as they are this season.

They've won three in a row and are 4-0-1 since losing the first two games of the season. Arizona, which counts defense and goaltending as its hallmarks, has scored 14 goals during its winning streak and 20 in the five-game point streak.

Video: OTT@ARI: Ekman-Larsson cleans up rebound in front

The Coyotes missed the playoffs by four points last season largely because they averaged 2.55 per game, tied for 28th in the League.

They're averaging 3.00 goals per game through seven games this season, and that includes scoring a total of one in their first two games, each regulation losses. This while allowing 1.86 goals per game, which is second in the NHL to the Anaheim Ducks (1.78).

Arizona starts a stretch of four consecutive road games at the New York Rangers on Tuesday (7 p.m. ET; MSG, FS-A, FS-A Plus, NHL.TV).

"It's just been more of a consistent game," coach Rick Tocchet said. "This team can't afford, especially in the past, to have four, five or six guys have an off night. We just can't. Some other teams can. Now I'm finding that we don't have as many passengers. Very rarely at the end of a game do you say five or six guys weren't into it. Those numbers are a lot less."

The offseason trade for forward Phil Kessel and the return of forward Nick Schmaltz from injury have been the two most impactful changes from last season.

Kessel, acquired from the Pittsburgh Penguins on June 29, is the right wing on the Coyotes top line with Stepan and Clayton Keller. He has four points (two goals, two assists), but he leads the Coyotes with 20 shots on goal and he has points on three of their six power-play goals, all scored in the past five games.

"He knows how to score and he's giving everybody around him more confidence just being around him," defenseman Oliver Ekman-Larsson said. "At the same time guys that we're playing against focus on Phil and maybe it gives some other guys a bit of a break."

Video: NSH@ARI: Kessel fires home second power-play goal

Schmaltz's return from knee surgery gives the Coyotes more skill and speed on their second line.

He leads Arizona with eight points (three goals, five assists), all in the past five games. He scored 14 points (five goals, nine assists) in 17 games with the Coyotes after being traded to Arizona by the Chicago Blackhawks on Nov. 25 but missed the final 43 games because of the injury.

Tocchet said Schmaltz's line, with Christian Dvorak at center and Conor Garland on the left wing, has been the Coyotes' most consistent. Garland leads the team with four goals and Dvorak has three. He has also won 68.2 percent of his face-offs (45 of 66).

"[Schmaltz] can find that open ice and and be patient with the puck," Tocchet said. "He doesn't really get rid of pucks. He can find somebody. He just doesn't throw pucks or dump it all the time. He can make a play and I think that goes a long way. He's shooting the puck and he's got a great shot."

Tocchet wonders if Schmaltz would have made the difference to help Arizona get into the playoffs last season. He specifically pointed to a four-game road trip from March 18-24, when the Coyotes scored a total of four goals and went 0-3-1 against the Tampa Bay Lightning, Florida Panthers, New Jersey Devils and New York Islanders.

"A goal here or there," Tocchet said. "Is there a goal that maybe he would have gotten or maybe he would have made a play? Yeah, you take a playmaker out of our lineup it's a big thing for us. He's a guy that can make plays."

The Coyotes' forward depth this season doesn't stop at the second line, a problem in previous seasons.

The third line of Carl Soderberg, who was acquired in a trade from the Colorado Avalanche on June 25, Lawson Crouse and Christian Fischer might be the Coyotes most trustworthy defensively. Soderberg also has five points (two goals, three assists).

Their fourth line of Brad Richardson, Michael Grabner and Vinnie Hinostroza is arguably their fastest line.

"I talked to some guys in training camp and I was like, 'Oh, you can really feel how we stepped it up from last year,' " said Ekman-Larsson, the Coyotes captain. "I mean, it's hard to practice against our forward group right now and I think that's good for 'D' corps too. That's how we get better too.

"It's been a long time since we've had a team like this."

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