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Coyotes having fun, looking to build on success in early season

Tied with Oilers for first in Pacific Division but know 'there's a lot of hockey left'

by Tracey Myers @Tramyers_NHL / Staff Writer

CHICAGO -- The Arizona Coyotes felt the opportunity was there.

The Coyotes had come back after trailing 3-1 to the Chicago Blackhawks in the first period to tie it 3-3 in the second. They were playing the finale of a four-game road trip, and they wanted to end on a high note.

"We talked after the second, 'We win this period, it's going to be a [heck] of a trip,'" coach Rick Tocchet said after the Coyotes rallied for a 4-3 shootout win at United Center on Sunday to go 3-1-0 on the road trip. "Lot of credit to the guys. It's three games in four nights, a tough couple of buildings to play in. Instead of just a good trip, it's a [heck] of a trip."

It's been a heck of a season for the Coyotes (18-10-4). When they defeated the Philadelphia Flyers 3-1 on Thursday, they moved into first place in their division for the first time since Oct. 26, 2015. They have not made the Stanley Cup Playoffs since 2012.

Arizona is currently tied for first in the Pacific Division with the Edmonton Oilers at 40 points. Last season, it didn't reach that mark until Jan. 10 (41 points).

On Sunday, the Coyotes were opportunistic in tracking down pucks against the Blackhawks and relentless in their offensive attack, outshooting Chicago 47-29. Forward Nick Schmaltz had two assists and scored in the shootout in his first game against the Blackhawks, who traded him to the Coyotes for forwards Dylan Strome and Brendan Perlini on Nov. 25, 2018. 

But as happy as Arizona is with its latest road trip, and its season overall, goalie Darcy Kuemper said they're not getting ahead of themselves. 

"I mean, there's a lot of hockey left, so we're not really watching the standings," said Kuemper, who made 26 saves against Chicago. "We want to keep a little bit of a cushion, it's so tight right now. We just have to take it one game at a time. Every time we can get points it's huge."

Video: Garland lifts Coyotes to shootout win vs. Blackhawks

The Coyotes are coming off a busy November during which they played 16 games in 29 days, including four back-to-backs, going 8-5-3.

"It was definitely a tough month, for sure. Lots of travel, lots of games and a lot of back-to-backs," forward Clayton Keller said. "But our group stuck with it and we got some big wins there, and that created some momentum for us. Whether we were tired or not, we were going to bring the same effort, and everyone was having fun with it. That's when you know you're usually playing your best and having the most fun."

Although the Coyotes have been without defenseman Niklas Hjalmarsson since he sustained a lower-body injury against the Colorado Avalanche on Oct. 12, their defensive style of play has remained in his absence. Arizona is allowing 2.28 goals per game, first in the NHL.

"Just five-man units," Tocchet said. "[Hjalmarsson], that's a big loss. We've kind of withstood it. There's light at the end of the tunnel, he's getting closer to coming back. But for me, it's defending as five. Obviously, our goaltending's been great all year, that's helped us. But our mindset of defending the puck and then transition has been really good this year."

Goaltending has been critical for Arizona. Kuemper is 13-6-2 with a 1.96 goals-against average and .935 save percentage. Antti Raanta 5-4-2 with a 2.52 GAA and .926 save percentage.

"That's been the story of our team, they've been great all season," forward Vinnie Hinostroza said. "We love having them in net, but we have to try to limit [opponents'] chances. We've been giving up a little too much."

Video: ARI@CHI: Kuemper makes great diving save on Toews

If there's one area of improvement the Coyotes would like to make, it's with their consistency on offense, where they are tied for 23rd in the League at 2.63 goals per game. But so far, they keep finding ways to win, and coming off their latest road trip, they're confident they can keep it going, starting Tuesday against the Calgary Flames at Gila River Arena (9 p.m. ET; SN1, FS-A, FS-A PLUS, NHL.TV).

"Just keep playing the same way," Schmaltz said. "[The season's] been great and we're having a lot of fun. The group's really close-knit. I'm enjoying it. You want to keep banking those points as much as you can. Every point matters at the end because the West is so competitive this year."

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