Arizona Coyotes head coach Rick Tocchet’s first question during his media availability Monday surrounded what he’s seen from the Colorado Avalanche. Evidentially, he and his staff have been thinking a lot about the team’s upcoming opponent for at least the next four games.
“Do you got an hour?” Tocchet quipped.
There is a lot of preparation that has been squeezed in by the Coyotes over the past five days. Arizona had to make sure they were even advancing by focusing on defeating the Nashville Predators in Game 4 on Friday. Even after securing a spot past the Qualifying Round, the Coyotes had to wait until Saturday afternoon to know whom they would face.
A tough challenge awaited no matter whom Arizona eventually matched up with, but Colorado may seem to be a better draw. The Coyotes did not lose in regulation to the Avalanche in the regular season (1-0-1), and are 3-2-1 in the last six matchups.
The 2016-2017 season saw the Coyotes and the Avalanche finish at the bottom of the standings. The Avalanche were the worst team in the league by 21 points, and the Coyotes wound up with the seventh overall pick, which they traded to the Rangers for Antti Raanta and Derek Stepan.
The 2017 draft was to provide a turn in both organizations’ rebuilds, and for Colorado it has worked better. Despite losing the lottery, the Avalanche arguably drafted the best player at fourth overall, with Cale Makar quickly turning into a star. He is a part of a young core that continues to grow, and is looking to keep Colorado as a Stanley Cup contender for the next decade.
Sure, the Coyotes are not where they thought they could be when they first made that trade at the 2017 draft. Other trades and prospects have not worked out the way they have hoped, but there is only one thing that matters: they are officially in the first round of the playoffs.
Good news continues to roll in as the week goes along as well. Center Nick Schmaltz went through a full practice on Sunday, the first time he was able to do so after being hit in the head by Vegas Golden Knights forward Ryan Reeves during a July 30 exhibition game.
Schmaltz is too good of a player to leave out of the lineup when healthy, and that brings the debate on who would come out. It cannot be easy to tinker with a lineup that gutted out the two biggest wins in the franchise’s last eight years, but someone gets the unenviable task of being up in a suit instead of suiting up.
The one lineup decision that Tocchet does not have to think about is who starts between the pipes. Darcy Kuemper stopped 152 of a possible 163 saves, facing less than 40 shots only once in the four games against Nashville. He has been the Coyotes best player the last two years, and will have to be if Arizona wants to play into September.
Brad Richardson’s overtime goal in Game 4 to secure the Qualifying Round series win undeniably boosted the moral of a team who’s season looked bleak back in March before the shutdown. But, one series win does not equal the Stanley Cup, and the team has been challenged already this week to focus up on what lies ahead.
“We need to be off the cloud and back on Earth as fast as we can,” Tocchet said, “because we’re playing a team built to win a Stanley Cup.”
If the team does not come back to reality quickly, they may refocus when the likes of Nathan MacKinnon or Mikko Rantanen blaze to the net, a normal site for most around the league. While the team arriving not mentally prepared is always a possibility, too many players in the Arizona locker room know what it takes to go all the way for that to happen.
Wednesday marks the beginning of a series between two teams who are looking to put its respective rebuilds in the rear view mirror. In terms of regular season success, Colorado might be where Arizona was hoping to be at this point. But, in the Stanley Cup Playoffs, it does not matter how one gets in, it matters that they skate off the ice with the 34.5 pounds of silver and nickel alloy.