co authored by Seth Askelson and Scott Strande.
The Arizona Coyotes are set for its most important games since 2012, and are loaded at the game’s most important position. Darcy Kuemper and Antti Raanta, along with a little Adin Hill sprinkled in, pushed the Coyotes to the third-best goals against per game in the league prior to the March 12 shutdown.
Statistically the best combo in terms of save percentage since the 2017-2018 season (50 games played minimum), Kuemper and Raanta will need to be absolutely lights out to give Arizona a chance to advance to its first seven-game series since the 2012 Western Conference Finals. That duo came together during the 2018 portion of that season, when Arizona made a rare trade with the rival Los Angeles Kings to acquire Kuemper.
Kuemper had an ugly start to his Coyotes career, posting a 3.22 goals against average and a .899 SV% in ten games. That was not entirely his fault, as he came from a playoff-bound Kings team to an Arizona team which finished 22nd in the league in goals against per game. Next season showed exactly why the Coyotes traded Kuemper, as the Saskatoon native put together a season for the ages.
The 55 games in the crease for Kuemper during the 2018-2019 season, including 22 straight as he nearly dragged the Coyotes into a magical playoff run. He posted the best GAA and tied for the best SV% of all goaltenders who played at least 50 games, and was the goalie of record for 27 of Arizona’s 39 wins. While the team finished four points out of a playoff spot, the franchise may have found its goaltender for the next half-decade.
The man that was expected to be the goaltender of the future, and very well may still be, has struggled to stay on the ice during his three years in the Valley. Raanta came over via a trade on Draft Day 2017, but has played only 92 games in that time. It is not hard to see why he has been so valuable despite the injury issues, as he has posted a 2.47 GAA and a .924 SV% in those 92 appearances in the crease (90 starts).
Arizona head coach Rick Tocchet has the most wanted problem in the league. Most nights, he could choose his starting goaltender by playing darts blindfolded, and still get a top-tier performance in the crease. The key to winning in the Edmonton bubble is the same as it has been over the past two-plus seasons: the 18 skaters have to hold up their ends of the bargain.
It is hard to say that the Coyotes goaltenders need to be great in these upcoming games, because they HAVE been great. The dilemma for Arizona is not about whether they can keep the puck out of its net. Rather, it is if they can get the puck past the other goaltenders.
Those other goaltenders my teammate speaks of include the duo from Vegas, Marc Andre-Fleury and Robin Lehner. The tandem in Vegas is both talented and experienced, but that is where the similarities end.
Physically and style wise few goalies are farther apart, but the end result is a pair of net minders, Golden Knights Head Coach Peter DeBoer knows he can turn to to win hockey games, especially clutch games, playoff games.
Fleury, at 6’2” and 185 pounds dripping wet, is the veteran leader of the young Golden Knights and prior to the COVID-19 stoppage in play, had posted another impressive season with 27 wins 16 losses, a goals against average 2.77 and a save percentage of .905. The two time Stanley Cup Champion has been everything and more to the Golden Knights since becoming their day one goaltender three seasons ago and appears ready for another deep playoff run. Fleury has cat like quick reflexes and plays with flare that leaves you on the edge of your seat and cameras clicking from the opening face-off.
Lehner, at 6’4” and 240 pounds, was a trade deadline acquisition from Chicago and quickly made believers of Vegas coaches and fans. Starting just three games before the stoppage, but posting a 3-0-0 record, 1.67 goals against average and ridiculous 9.40 save percentage.
Lehner uses his size to virtually eliminate any open areas in the net behind him and combined with his stand up style, gives even the best National Hockey League shooters nightmares. Scoring against Lehner has been nearly impossible since he arrived in the Desert SW, including against his teammates in a series of training camp scrimmages.
The combination of Fleury and Lehner is a coaches delight and DeBoer is not afraid to go with either in any situation. Both will likely split the exhibition and round robin games for the Golden Knights in Edmonton.
Once the 16 team Stanley Cup Playoff portion begins, in just over a week, expect DeBoer to ride the hot goaltender, with the Golden Knights in great hands which ever one that is.
To say goaltending is the strength of our two NHL teams in the Desert SW would be a huge understatement and as my teammate also eluded to, the challenge for the Golden Knights will be scoring on opposing goaltenders, something they have gotten better at every season of their young history.
Welcome Back Hockey 2020… we look forward to what looks to be the best Stanley Cup Playoffs ever. Healthy, motivated rosters filled with talented players and led by strong goaltending can only lead to incredible excitement! Let the games begin.