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Arizona Coyotes come up just short of playoff spot

April 8, 2019
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Arizona Coyotes defenseman Kevin Connauton (44) sends Winnipeg Jets center Jack Roslovic (28) into referee Chris Lee during the third period of an NHL hockey game Saturday, April 6, 2019, in Glendale, Ariz. The Jets defeated the Coyotes 4-2. (AP Photo/Ross D. Franklin)

The Arizona Coyotes lost their starting goaltender after 12 starts, the kind of setback that could spoil an entire season.

The injuries kept coming, piling up like no other team in the league, which should have sent them to the bottom of the standings again.

Yet there they were the final week of the season, fighting for a playoff spot.

Talk about flourishing in the face of adversity.

Following the lead of coach of the year candidate Rick Tocchet, the Coyotes finished with a winning record for the first time in five years and were four points short of a Western Conference playoff spot.

“I think we took huge strides this year,” Coyotes forward Brad Richardson said. “Last year, we were probably out of the playoffs Nov. 1, I would think. We were a couple games away this year. So I think we made huge strides.”

The Coyotes were hoping to become a playoff contender after a strong finish to the 2017-18 season.

They took a big hit in late November, when starting goalie Antti Raanta went down with a season-ending knee injury.

The injuries didn’t stop there. Nick Schmaltz, who played well after being acquired in a trade with Chicago, suffered a season-ending injury. Richardson, fellow forwards Derek Stepan, Alex Galchenyuk and Christian Dvorak missed at least 10 games. So did defensemen Jakob Chychrun and Jason Demers.

Despite suffering more setbacks than any other NHL team, the Coyotes kept scratching and clawing.

With Tocchet pulling the mental strings, superb goaltending from Darcy Kuemper and a steady defense, Arizona briefly moved into a playoff spot in March after going 10-2-0.

Arizona remained in the playoff hunt into April, but couldn’t keep up the pace as the Colorado Avalanche got hot at the right time.

The Coyotes finished 39-35-8, their best record since reaching the Western Conference Finals, and had 86 points. Colorado had one fewer win, but had 90 points.

“We have to keep moving forward,” Tocchet said. “We can’t take a step back.”

A few more things from the Coyotes’ season:

KUEMPER’S TIME: Kuemper had been a career backup before Raanta went down, never playing more than 31 games in a season.

Thrust into the No. 1 spot, the 28-year-old played like a Vezina Trophy-worthy goalie. Kuemper carried the Coyotes at times during their playoff push and finished the season 27-20-8. He had five shutouts, a 2.33 goals-against average and .925 save percentage.

TOCCHET’S TURN: Tocchet was the steady rudder through the choppy ice during his second season at the helm, putting himself in the conversation for the Jack Adams award as the NHL’s top coach.

Keeping his players focused and positive, the former NHL player was the calming influence the Coyotes needed amid all the adversity.

Barry Trotz is the Jack Adams front-runner after turning around the New York Islanders, but Tocchet put his name in the mix with a superb coaching job.

SCORING WOES: As has been the case seemingly every season in the desert, scoring was a big problem for the Coyotes.

They had a few scoring spurts, but the Coyotes again were among the NHL’s worst scoring teams, finishing with 209 goals and averaging 2.5 per game.

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