5. Arizona Coyotes
Do not let the desert dogs of the Valley sneak up on you.
Despite an injury-plagued season, the Arizona Coyotes find themselves, as the Valley natives like to call it, “scratching and crawling” their way into the postseason – a time and place the franchise has not touched since 2011-2012.
Even though Arizona lost cornerstones Antti Raanta, Nick Schmaltz, and Derek Stepan for most of the regular season with lower-body injuries, head coach Rick Tocchet has called up young, proven guys at the right time, and the results have been a surprising success – sitting on the bubble of a Wild Card spot.
Even more impressive, after nearly no hope at all to make the playoffs, the Coyotes still have a small chance to take over third place in the Pacific Division, crawling closer to the Vegas Golden Knights with an eleven-point margin with nine games remaining.
How have the Coyotes formulated this miracle in the making?
For starters, it’s clearly not the offense. As a common trend in the franchise’s latest history, the backbone for their strongest style of play is their defense and goaltending.
The Coyotes own a 2.80 goals against average, the 6th-lowest in the Western Conference and the 10th-lowest in the league.
In Raanta’s absence, Darcy Kuemper has stepped up in-goal, playing big minutes down the stretch as the No.1 netminder. In his seventh season and first as a starting goaltender, Kuemper has posted an outstanding 2.49 GAA and .919 save percentage with 24 of Arizona’s 36 wins, including a 9-4-1 record in his last 14 games.
On top of that, their penalty kill has been one of the best in the league with an 85.1% rating, which ranks second overall behind the impeccable defense of the Tampa Bay Lightning.
Furthermore, with the help of speedster and penalty kill specialist Michael Grabner, the Coyotes have scored a franchise-record 16 short-handed goals, two behind the Calgary Flames for the most in the league.
While their defensive metrics are impressive, the Coyotes can’t win playoff games without any offense.
Arizona’s biggest off-season acquisition Alex Galchenyuk leads the charge with 17 goals and only trails Clayton Keller and Oliver Ekman-Larsson in the highest point total with 38.
Their individual offensive numbers aren’t quite as impressive as the hottest playoff contenders, however the Coyotes are surprisingly one of four teams to have 11 players with double-digit goal totals, including Montreal, Tampa Bay, and San Jose.
Despite representing one of the lowest scoring offenses (2.62) in the conference, the Coyotes have found a happy medium for lighting the lamp and defending the crease.
Against the San Jose Sharks, the Coyotes have been a tough customer, matching a 2-1-1 record against each other. The Sharks took the first match-up at Gila River Arena, winning 5-3 in a resilient back-to-back effort following a down-to-the-wire 3-2 loss against the Dallas Stars.
15 days later, the desert dogs bounced back and earned a hard-fought 4-3 shootout victory at SAP center before shocking eyes on national television when Arizona doubled up on San Jose 6-3 back on home ice.
In the final regular season series meeting in the Silicon Valley, Brent Burns finished off the Coyotes with a brilliant back-handed shot to secure the 3-2 OT win.
The Sharks do have the edge statistically, but the largest and most important variable for both of these playoff-pushing squads heading into the final games of the season is health. While the Coyotes remain hopeful for Stepan and Raanta to return, the Sharks seek a 100% recovery for 2019 All-Stars Erik Karlsson and Joe Pavelski to drive the top line and primary power play unit.
This season has been a test of adversity for the hockey team residing in the Valley, but the Coyotes’ hopes of being a deep sleeper for the Stanley Cup are more than alive.