By Seth Askelson
Today is the day. It is finally here. The first Arizona Coyotes postseason game in 2,995 days. The Valley hockey community has waited 40% of this wild year in between Coyotes contests that count toward the ultimate goal: the Stanley Cup.
Today marks an opportunity that was an uphill battle when the NHL announced its shutdown on March 12. Arizona’s last game on March 9 in Winnipeg was its second consecutive loss on what seemed to be a make-or-break road trip.
At the time of the pause, Arizona trailed the final Wild Card spot by four points, and had surrendered four point to teams directly in front of them. While there were still 12 games left, many teams standing in the way were going to have to start racking up the losses.
Now, the Coyotes no longer need help. They do not have to sit, helplessly, hoping other teams pick up key defeats. Arizona controls its own destiny, and it is a simple concept: win three games before the Nashville Predators do.
Simple in theory, but the execution is not so easy. Arizona upgraded its struggling forward group from a year ago with two moves – the trade for Phil Kessel last offseason and the trade for Taylor Hall in December. Despite have two of the top wingers of the past decade, the Coyotes have not cracked the top 20 in goals for.
Injuries are another story for the second straight season. This time, it really affected the back end. What carried the Coyotes in a playoff run the year before was depleted like never before.
The Coyotes have always found a way to survive and keep themselves in the race. The COVID-19 pandemic gave them a chance to regroup, come back healthy, and prepare for a postseason that looked bleak nearly five months ago.
Thursday night did not provide any hope. The Coyotes struggled with puck control at times against the Vegas Golden Knights, and ultimately fell 4-1. A fully healthy team saw one of its key offensive pieces, Nick Schmaltz, leave the game after a hit to the head from Ryan Reeves.
It may have felt like the “same old Coyotes”. A team that struggles to find goals, who’s back end play keeps them in games. There were not a lot of positives, but the biggest one of them all – that game did not matter.
It did not put the Coyotes behind 1-0 in any playoff series. They now know what has to change in order to win Game 1 on Sunday morning, a Game 1 that is more important than usual with less room for error in the Qualifying Round.
Arizona has some of the best playoff performers in recent memory. Nik Hjalmarsson has three Stanley Cups as a part of the best defensive units of the decade. Kessel and head coach Rick Tocchet have matching Stanley Cup rings from their time in Pittsburgh. Alex Goligoski and Brad Richardson can point out their names on the game’s most coveted prize. Plus, a winger in his contract year, looking to prove he his worth every cent he will ask for during the offseason.
It is fitting that the first opponent that stands in the way is the Predators, the last team the Coyotes defeated in a playoff series. When the two teams met in 2012, it was two Sun Belt teams trying to propel themselves into the league’s elites. Nashville managed that with its 2017 run to the Stanley Cup Finals, and the Coyotes may be able to start a similar franchise-altering run against the Predators.
It has been a long 2,995 days. Days filled with uncertainty, confusion and lots of defeats both on and off the ice. Winning cures all, and if the Coyotes find a way to make a deep playoff run, the last 3,000 days will be forgiven and forgotten, making room for pleasant memories awaiting the Valley hockey community.