The Arizona Coyotes shouldn’t be in the Western Conference wild-card race. On paper, it shouldn’t be possible that this team is waking up on the first day of March one point back of the final berth in the conference, two points back of the top wild-card seed and, somehow, only six points back of the third spot in the Pacific Division.
Yet, here they are.
It’s easy enough to explain why one would come to the conclusion that the Coyotes shouldn’t be in wild-card contention. The injury list nearly tells the whole story. Before the campaign had even begun, Christian Dvorak hit the shelf with a pectoral injury from which he’s only now returning. That was after Jakob Chychrun went under the knife for knee surgery, too. But those injuries were only the beginning of what has been a season of repeated body blows, beginning with a pair of shots that seemed to have all the potential to completely submarine the season. First, it was defenseman Jason Demers’ ACL tear, which has sidelined him since the first-quarter of the campaign. Then came starting goaltender Antti Raanta’s lower-body injury, throwing the Coyotes’ crease into disarray. And while most in Arizona would have been ready to wave a white flag, say uncle, the hits kept coming for the Coyotes.
In the wake of losing Demers and Raanta, Arizona watched as Michael Grabner hit the shelf with an eye injury and Vinnie Hinostroza landed on the injured list for a short span with a lower-body ailment. Mid-season acquisition Nick Schmaltz was then lost for the season to a lower-body injury of his own. Then there were knocks to Oliver Ekman-Larsson, Alex Goligoski, Kevin Connauton, Richard Panik and Mario Kempe, and as if that wasn’t bad enough, Chychrun again found himself on the sidelines for yet another short span with — you guessed it — a dreaded lower-body injury.
Despite a laundry list of infirmary-bound players and more man-games lost than any other team this season, though, the Coyotes have somehow managed to keep pace in the wild card. It helps, of course, that the situation in the Western Conference wild card is less a race than it is several teams playing their own, on-ice version of QWOP, with each participant tripping over their own feet the moment they appear to be off and running. Regardless, it makes it no less impressive that Arizona has remained in the hunt, and the way the Coyotes have been able to accomplish that is, in coach speak, simply finding ways to win.
If that sounds like a cop out or a lazy explanation for the Coyotes’ success, rest assured it isn’t, because there’s really no other way to interpret what the Arizona has been able to accomplish thus far in the face of seemingly endless obstacles.
Take Thursday night’s contest against the Vancouver Canucks, for example. Already entering the night riding a four-game win streak, one that has been highlighted by two shootout victories and a defeat over the should-be Stanley Cup contender Winnipeg Jets, the Coyotes produced a 5-2 trouncing of the Canucks and stretched their win streak to five. The hero on the night? Brad Richardson, who scored not once, not twice, not thrice, but four times, making the 34-year-old the 11th oldest player in the past 30 years to score at least four times in a single contest. The single-game output from Richardson — who, before you ask, has missed 16 games this season due to injury and illness — not only accounts for one-quarter of his goal total this season, but the four goals across one 60-minute outing were more than he potted during the entire 2017-18 campaign.
But Richardson’s not some sort of one-of-a-kind character in Arizona this season. Up and down the lineup, different players have stepped up at different times to produce. The Coyotes have pulled production out of the likes of the since-departed Jordan Weal, Michael Bunting, Ilya Lyubushkin and Josh Archibald, while maybe no player is the poster boy for the next-man-up philosophy the Coyotes have been forced by injury to adopt quite like Conor Garland. The mid-season call up has 12 goals, 15 points and two game-winners, and his performance has resulted in his re-signing to a two-year pact. That’s mighty impressive given Garland wasn’t even on the radar for most Coyotes faithful, let alone the rest of the league, before this season.
More incredible about all of this is that while Arizona’s success could almost be explained out were the Coyotes an exceptional advanced analytics outfit, that isn’t quite the case. While by no means a bottom of the barrel club, Arizona’s season-to-date numbers at 5-on-5 are mid-range at best. According to NaturalStatTrick, the Coyotes rank 19th in Corsi percentage (49.2), 14th in shots percentage (49.8), 19th in scoring chances percentage (48.6) and 23rd in high-danger chances percentage (47.2). Arizona’s success can’t even be chalked up to an incredible level of puck luck. The Coyotes’ 6.9 shooting percentage at 5-on-5 is tied for the second-lowest in the league, while their .914 save percentage at five-a-side ranks 23rd. The combined number, otherwise known as PDO, is .982, the second-lowest mark in the NHL.
The reality is that there’s nothing that Arizona has done exceptionally well this season. The offense has been mediocre, as has the goaltending, and as noted above, the Coyotes aren’t exactly a puck possession powerhouse. But in a season where a few things have almost defied logic — the sheer dominance of the Tampa Bay Lightning, the St. Louis Blues’ run from basement team to potential Stanley Cup threat and about everything that has happened involving the Ottawa Senators — the Coyotes’ ability to stay in the hunt for a post-season berth is giving every other story a run for its money. And if Arizona can continue to weather the storm and somehow sneak into the final playoff spot, it might just make for the most remarkable story of the season.