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Coyotes’ season ends with both disappointment and pride

Arizona Coyotes center Alex Galchenyuk (17) celebrates his goal against the Winnipeg Jets during the first period of an NHL hockey game Saturday, April 6, 2019, in Glendale, Ariz. (AP Photo/Ross D. Franklin)

GLENDALE, Ariz. — The Arizona Coyotes’ season finale on Saturday was somewhat of a strange game.

It wasn’t strange because of the events that occurred on the ice, but more for the context that surrounded them. It was the first game the Coyotes played all season that didn’t have playoff implications for Arizona.

It was also a sold out crowd. That’s not a coincidence.

The Coyotes lost 4-2 to the playoff-bound Winnipeg Jets and were outshot 32-21 as Pickard made 28 saves. Arizona finishes just shy of the 40-win mark, going 39-35-8. It was their most wins in a season since 2011-12, when the team went to the Western Conference Finals.

“Everybody’s disappointed. You got a taste of how close you are,” head coach Rick Tocchet said. “I was talking to the players the other day. From [a preseason game in] Kelowna … to today, was there anything we could’ve done more for those extra two, three points? Right? I even say to myself, ‘Could I have done something?’

“So I think that’s something you think about, but in between that, I’m really proud of this group.”

Arizona was eliminated from playoff contention on Thursday when the Avalanche earned a point in the standings by going to overtime. As that was going on, the Coyotes were heading to the dressing room at second intermission in Vegas. It was there that they learned they were out of the playoffs.

“Obviously we wanted to get in the playoffs. I thought we played well enough to. It’s disappointing,” Brad Richardson said. “I think with all the injuries, though, we can hang our hats on the way we battled, the way we competed.

“We could’ve easily took the road where, ‘Woe is me,’ I don’t think we did that. We played hard right to the end. I just think what it came down to, we just didn’t score enough goals. We had the unbelievable goaltending. So I think it was all there, I think we all thought we were going to get in, and then it was kind of heartbreaking the other night.”

Saturday’s game was also unique because it was a rare start for goaltender Calvin Pickard, who sat and watched as Darcy Kuemper made 22 straight starts for the second-longest such streak in team history. Kuemper unanimously won the team MVP award as voted on by the media, but he yielded the starters’ net to his backup for game 82.

Kuemper went into head coach Rick Tocchet’s office Friday morning and lobbied for Pickard to get the start in the last game.

“I’ve been involved in the NHL 30 years and I could name you a lot of guys that are good team guys, great guys that you’d go to bat for. And Pick’s up there and one on my list of guys,” Tocchet said. “He knew the circumstances and this guy’s on ice taking shots and shots [in practice], positive guy, always cheering guys on the ice. And that’s a hard job to do when he wants to be in there.

“And for him to do that, what he did the last three months, I’ll never forget that. He’s a great guy. And I really appreciate and respect what he’s done for our team.”

Tocchet said the team’s equipment manager, Stan Wilson, told him this year’s group was one of the best he’s been around. The display by Kuemper and Pickard to put the team before the individuals was part of an attitude and culture that helped the team do as well as it did.

Pickard didn’t even become part of the team until he was claimed on waivers in late November.

“We were just fighting every night,” Pickard said. “We were so consistent with our effort and it drove other teams crazy, and it was special. Not knowing many guys or much about the team coming over here, it’s a special group and there’s going to be some good days ahead.”

Given the context of where the Coyotes have been in their franchise history — the lows and the highs — and given where they were just over a year ago when their season was off the rails by November, this year could reasonably be seen as an enormous step forward.

“I think we took huge strides this year,” Richardson said. “Last year, we were probably out of the playoffs Nov. 1 I would think. We were a couple games away this year. So I think we made huge strides. Our defensive game was our anchor this year, and then goaltending. I thought we made huge, huge strides and we look to continue that again next year.”

For so much of the Coyotes’ season, injuries were the story. Tocchet called his group a “day-to-day team.” He was always having to manage the latest curveball. Surely, the team is hoping that changes next year.

What they don’t want to change is the motivation to improve.

“I talked to OEL on the plane the other day,” Tocchet said. “He goes, ‘We’ve got to keep this culture going the right way.’ We’ve made some strides. We’ve got to keep steamrolling. We’ve got to keep pushing ourselves. We’ve got some guys that are going to have to have a really good summer to train. We have some guys that didn’t have that great of a year. They have to come back really motivated.

“But the attitude of our organization is to push forward. We can not take a step back.”

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