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For improved Coyotes, penalty kill and defense have been critical

Tampa Bay Lightning's Anthony Cirelli (71) skates with the puck as Arizona Coyotes' Michael Grabner reaches in to defend during the third period of an NHL hockey game, Saturday, Oct. 27, 2018, in Glendale, Ariz. (AP Photo/Ralph Freso)

GLENDALE, Ariz. — As the Coyotes have seen their record improve from 1-4 to 5-5, the team’s goal-scoring has picked up, too. That’s not a coincidence.

But quietly, while goal-scoring has been the external focus of the Coyotes’ successes (and failures), the defense and penalty kill have quietly hummed along, holding teams to few goals, low shot totals and stymied power plays.

It’s getting harder to not notice it.

Entering play on Monday, the Arizona Coyotes had an 89.3 penalty kill percentage, the second-best rate in the league behind only the Tampa Bay Lightning (who, ironically, had the best record in the league until they lost to the Coyotes).

“There’s a philosophy that we have,” coach Rick Tocchet said. “[Assistant coach] Scotty Allen’s done a nice job of putting these guys through mental reps, whether it’s video or talking about the personnel we’re playing on the other team. And then it’s just a belief. We’re getting guys blocking shots, guys are putting pressure on the puck-carriers. Obviously your goalie has to be your best PK and we have, we’re getting great goaltending there and that’s why that’s another factor on our PK.”

Philosophy and strategy aside, it helps that the Coyotes added a prolific penalty-killer this offseason in Michael Grabner, who signed a three-year, $10.05 million deal, per Spotrac.

He and center Brad Richardson have formed an important tandem on the PK, leading in part to Grabner’s two (!) shorthanded goals against the Lightning on Saturday.

“I think he’s got one of the better sticks you’ll see in the league,” Richardson said of Grabner. “He’s good at kind of baiting guys in and putting a puck where he wants them to and he can intercept it and knock pucks down. But we’ve just been reading off each other well. We know what we’re doing and then if there’s a chance there, we’re trying to go. He’s got exceptional speed so you want to try to use that if you can.”

Grabner, who scored six shorthanded goals in 2010-11 with the Islanders, is tied for seventh among active players with 17 shorthanded goals for his career, according to Quanthockey, six behind the active leader, Boston’s Brad Marchand.

The efforts of Grabner and others are why Arizona has a plus-two goal differential on PKs this season, and lead the league in shorthanded goals with five.

“We have chemistry, like reading off each other,” Grabner said of Richardson. “That makes it easy of shutting down plays, being more aggressive and kind of like making it hard on them to make plays.”

“They know when to go into pressure,” Tocchet said. “When one guy’s pressuring a guy, the other guy is reading the other guy’s route really well. I think that’s big. Richie knows if Grabs is going to pressure, where he should be. If he’s not going to pressure, Richie will maybe do a different route. I think that’s just chemistry and that’s just talking about it.

“You can have two good penalty killers, but if they’re on a different page, there could be trouble out there.”

One of the three PK goals Arizona has allowed this year came on Saturday against the Lightning, who got a lucky bounce, to say the least. As Tampa Bay was moving the puck in the Coyotes’ zone, it deflected into the air and popped up over goalie Antti Raanta’s head and into the net.

Without that lucky bounce, the Coyotes’ PK percentage would be 92.9 percent, not 89.3 percent.

Stepping back from special teams, the Coyotes have enjoyed good defense and goaltending. Entering Tuesday, Arizona was allowing an average of just 28.2 shots against per game, the fourth-best average in the NHL. They’ve allowed 20 goals, tied with New Jersey for the fewest in the league, but on a per-game average, that’s the best mark in hockey.

Arizona goaltenders Antti Raanta and Darcy Kuemper have been important to the team’s success, registering a .921 and .957 save percentage, respectively. Kuemper’s save percentage is tied with Winnipeg’s Laurent Brossoit for the best in league among netminders who have played three or more games.

The Coyotes’ defense was working even before the team’s goal production picked up, but it’s been crucial that it’s remained steady while the offense has gone from three goals in the first five games to 22 goals in the last five games.

That just has to continue as the team tries to extend what is currently a three-game winning streak when it hosts the Ottawa Senators on Tuesday.

“I like guys having fun and feeling good about themselves, but saying that, we can’t take anything for granted,” Tocchet said. “We’re .500. We’re 5-5. We’re there, but we’re still .500, and I think that more than ever you’ve got to stay with the system and make sure you do your proper things on and off the ice, more than ever.”

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