The 2019-20 Arizona Coyotes aren’t the same team the league has seen over the last few seasons. Even attending an optional morning skate — which barely any players took off — it’s evident that a new tide is turning, and the team is ready to put an end to the dog days in the desert.
The roster may not have changed much — albeit there’s now Phil Kessel and Carl Soderberg joining the pack — but this club is more assured and collected; from confidence in their goaltenders to trust in all four forward lines, the Coyotes are just different — and it’s working in their favor.
“I think [we’re] just holding each other accountable,” Christian Dvorak said. “I think playing as a team, all 20 guys, we’re just sticking with it and not getting frustrated.”
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That teamwork and accountability was evident on Wednesday when Arizona took on the New York Rangers.
The game started with the Coyotes dominating 21-3 in shots on goal at the end of the first period, but heading into the third, with the scofre tied at 2, their momentum dropped a bit. Dvorak noted that in the past, Arizona may have gotten frustrated in such a situation, but a different approach led to increased pressure on the forecheck in the third and ultimately, dominant zone time that helped him score the overtime winner.
With the victory, the Coyotes were able to improve to 5-2-1 on the season and extend their winning streak to four games. In addition to their record, they’re doing well in a number of categories, especially on the forecheck. Arizona is scoring three goals a game and the power play is operating at 27.3 percent. For defenseman Alex Goligoski, the offense is a huge part of the team’s success thus far.
“We’re showing a little patience out there. We’re getting set up and we’re not rushing to make plays,” Goligoski noted. “There’s looks you want to get, but if they’re not there, you kind of settle it down and reset and move pucks around again and get a look and get a shot. We’re finding the back of the net right now. It’s always good to see. It’s always good to keep that rolling.”
On the other end of the ice, the Coyotes are also doing everything right so far; they allow just 1.86 goals per game on average through eight games so far this season, with a strong goaltending tandem of Darcy Kuemper and Antti Raanta rounding out the defense.
Kuemper’s .944 save percentage is tied with Tuukka Rask for first in the NHL, and his 1.68 GAA ranks third. As for Raanta, the backup is 2-1-0, while sporting a .926 save percentage between the pipes.
“It’s exciting. We look forward to playing with both our goalies back there,” Lawson Crouse said. “We’re confident with whoever’s going in.”
Beyond the technical parts of the game, there’s a different culture forming. Younger players are stepping up. Shifts aren’t being taken off. The group is more confident. Players are actually relying on each other.
But most importantly — especially for third-year coach Rick Tocchet — everyone’s invested.
“It feels like you’re chipping away. What you’re doing is right, and guys are buying in,” Tocchet said, adding the team is heading in the right direction. “It’s easy as a coach when you have 21 guys buying in.”
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The message throughout the dressing room was that while it’s still early, this team has the potential and mindset to seriously compete for a playoff spot. Although they clawed close to a berth last season, the Coyotes haven’t made a postseason run since falling in the Western Conference Final to the Los Angeles Kings back in 2012.
A couple of years ago, being a playoff team was a long shot for Arizona. Now with tangible goals in reach, such as a postseason berth, the Coyotes must figure out how to keep their roll going.
“Maturity is handling prosperity — ‘Can we handle four games in a row? Everyone’s feeling good, but can we handle the success of it?’ That’s a key thing for me and this team,” Tocchet said. “Things are going good, but it can turn. You can enjoy the moment, don’t get me wrong, but you just got to handle prosperity,” Tocchet said.
“We like the way we’re playing right now. We’re a confident bunch,” Dvorak added. “We just got to stick with it and not get too high.”