The Oilers are in Arizona tonight to begin a back-to-back set of games in the desert. Here are your game day notes.
1. The Coyotes appear to the team to beat in the Zombie Walk for the eighth seed in the Western Conference. Since getting pounded 7-1 by Chicago earlier this week, the Coyotes have won back-to-back games and now have a three-point lead on the Minnesota Wild (and an eight-point lead on the Oilers for eighth place.
2. If the Coyotes did manage to squeak into the playoffs, it would be their first time doing so since 2011-12. That year, a team led by Mike Smith, Shane Doan, and Ray Whitney went all the way to the Western Conference Final before losing to the Los Angeles Kings (the eventual Stanley Cup winners) in five games.
3. Arizona has gone through a long, slow rebuilding process. They tanked for Connor McDavid in 2015 and local-product Auston Matthews in 2016 but didn’t have lottery balls land in their favour. Despite never ending up with the top pick in any of their tanking years, the Coyotes have gone on to build a fairly deep team centered mostly around keeping the puck out of the net. Arizona ranks eighth in the league in goals against despite the fact their top goalie, Antti Raanta, missed a good chunk of the season due to injury.
4. Arizona’s strong defensive play is highlighted by their insanely-good penalty kill. The Coyotes have killed off 85.1 percent of their penalties this season, second behind only the Tampa Bay Lightning. As a team, the Coyotes have also scored 15 short-handed goals, second only behind the Calgary Flames in that category.
5. The Coyotes, of course, have found success mostly through keeping the puck out of the net. Their offence is well below average as they rank 25th in the league in goals for. One thing the Coyotes do have going for them, though, is a deep attack with three lines that can score. While the Oilers, who also rank in the bottom third in the league in goals for, rely on two guys to drive all of their offence, Arizona has 10 forwards and one defenceman who have at least 10 goals.
6. The fact the Coyotes are doing as well as they are this season is impressive. The team has been decimated by injuries, losing key players like Antti Raanta, Alex Galchenyuk, Derek Stepan, Michael Grabner, Christian Dvorak, and Jakob Chychrun to injuries. Only three players, Niklas Hjalmarsson, Nick Cousins, and Clayton Keller, have played in all of Arizona’s 71 games this season. They’ve dressed a total of 30 different skaters and five different goalies.
7. A lot of Arizona’s success also coincides with finally having a close-to-healthy roster. As I said above, Arizona has had one of the worst seasons in terms of man games lost to injury. Now they’re rolling with a nearly-ideal roster, save for Derek Stepan and Antti Raanta. Arizona was a team many selected to have a breakout season this year after their strong finish to the 2017-18 season. Now that they’re healthy, we’re finally seeing that breakout many expected.
8. The Coyotes represent a prime example of how much a winning streak can do for you in a playoff race like the one right now in the Western Conference. When Arizona beat the Oilers a couple of weeks back in Edmonton (the game Connor McDavid was suspended for), they were barely in the playoff mix. But that win kicked off a six-game winning streak that pulled them right up into the mix. Beginning with that shootout win over the Oilers, Arizona dragged themselves into a playoff spot with a 10-2 stretch.
9. I think a major key specifically was finally getting Christian Dvorak on the ice. Dvorak missed the entirety of the season due to an injury and finally made his season debut in late February. Dvorak has five points in nine games centring the team’s top line and the Coyotes have gone 7-2 in that span.
10. This is clearly a must-win for the Oilers at this point. That loss to New Jersey on Wednesday really stuck a knife in Edmonton’s playoff push, so if they want to keep their incredibly faint hopes alive, they need to win this four-point game. A loss tonight means Arizona would be 10 points up on the Oilers with 11 games to play. You aren’t climbing out of that hole