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Coyotes have overcome obstacles to remain in thick of playoff race

Injuries haven't slowed down Arizona, which seeks first postseason berth since 2011-12

by Tracey Myers @TraMyers_NHL / NHL.com Staff Writer

Rick Tocchet is interested to see how it all plays out.

The Arizona Coyotes coach was looking at his team's final stretch of regular-season games, their chance to earn a spot in the Stanley Cup Playoffs for the first time since the 2011-12 season.

 

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"There's nothing worse than [12] games left, and you have nothing to play for, other than worrying about next year. Now these games are going to be keyed up," Tocchet said before the Coyotes lost 7-1 to the Chicago Blackhawks at United Center on Monday. "We're going to be in some tough situations coming up, and I'm really anxious to see how we deal with this stuff."

Considering how much the Coyotes have already dealt with this season, from the 340 man games lost because of injury to losing seven of eight games from Dec. 6-20 and a five-game losing streak from Jan. 23-Feb. 7, it won't be surprising if they find a way to get to the postseason. 

When the Coyotes followed the lopsided loss from Monday with a 3-1 win against the St. Louis Blues at Enterprise Center on Tuesday, they moved into the second wild card into the playoffs from the Western Conference. Arizona, which has 75 points, is 12-4-0 in its past 16 games. Now the Coyotes must keep up their successful pace down the stretch, beginning when they host the Anaheim Ducks at Gila River Arena on Thursday (10 p.m. ET; FS-A, PRIME, NHL.TV).

"It's been a while since the organization was in the playoffs and I think everyone's kind of sniffing at it," defenseman Niklas Hjalmarsson said. "We're right there. At the same time, we've always been just a couple of points behind, so it's time to take that extra step, make that extra push to get in the wild card."

Nothing's come easy for the Coyotes, whose injury situation is something Tocchet said he's never seen in his 30-plus seasons in the NHL. Goalie Antti Raanta has been out since Nov. 29 with a lower-body injury. Forward Nick Schmaltz, acquired in a trade with the Blackhawks for forwards Dylan Strome and Brendan Perlini on Nov. 26, has been out with a lower-body injury since Jan. 2. Neither is expected back in the regular season. Forward Derek Stepan was ruled out 4-6 weeks with a lower-body injury March 2. Defenseman Kyle Capobianco sustained a lower-body injury Feb. 7 and will not return this season.

Then there are forwards Christian Dvorak and Michael Grabner, and defenseman Jason Demers, who are healthy now but have missed significant time because of injury this season. Dvorak has played eight games, Demers 23 and Grabner 29.

"I think our leadership group and the coaching staff did a good job of having that next-man-up mentality," forward Clayton Keller said. "We knew how they wanted to play, regardless of who was in the lineup. When we did that, we had some successful weeks and road trips and I think after a couple of them, you get confident. And everything else just falls into place."

Video: CGY@ARI: Keller wires home one-timer to open scoring

On Jan. 3, the Coyotes were 17-21-2, seventh in the Pacific Division and 13th in the West. The Coyotes were frustrated and decimated by injuries, but Tocchet said they also had an epiphany.

"I think it was just a group [thought] of, it's going to be a long year if we don't do something," Tocchet said. "This team hasn't won over the years, and I think they just kind of made a stand. A couple of guys came up from Tucson (of the American Hockey League) and we just kind of put puzzles together. We started to get some wins and guys started believing in each other."

Since Jan. 6, Arizona is 18-9-2. 

"Anyone who's watched our team play the past two or three months, you see a hard-working team that's really found its identity," forward Vinnie Hinostroza said Tuesday. "Every day we approach it as a playoff game, whether it's a practice or a game, we look to get better. We don't look too far ahead. We're a resilient bunch and we just want to work hard for each other."

The Coyotes will approach the final 12 games of the regular season as they have the previous 70, with an emphasis on defense and goaltending; they're ninth in the NHL with 195 goals allowed. Goalie Darcy Kuemper, acquired from the Los Angeles Kings for forward Tobias Rieder and goalie Scott Wedgewood on Feb. 22, 2018, is 23-16-5 with a 2.51 goals-against average and .920 save percentage in 44 games. The wins and games played are NHL career highs for the 28-year-old.

"He's handled it well," defenseman Jordan Oesterle said of Kuemper. "We knew at the beginning of the year we had two unbelievable goaltenders with Antti and Darcy. Now that [Kuemper] has taken over the reins, he's played unbelievable and he knows how much we expect out of him."

In its final 12 regular-season games, Arizona will face four teams who were in a playoff spot entering Thursday: the Tampa Bay Lightning on Monday, the New York Islanders on March 24, the Vegas Golden Knights on April 4 and the Winnipeg Jets on April 6. Perhaps the most crucial game is March 31, when the Coyotes host the Minnesota Wild, who are one point behind Arizona in the standings.

The Coyotes are going to be tested. But that's nothing new for them this season, and they're embracing this challenge the same way. 

"Our destiny's up to us and everyone's having fun with it," Oesterle said. "Eighty-two games, it's a long season. And to have these last [12] games be so meaningful makes it so much more exciting."

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