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Arizona Coyotes win 6th straight on cusp of playoff position

Arizona Coyotes defenseman Oliver Ekman-Larsson (23) celebrates his goal against the Detroit Red Wings with teammates on the bench during the first period of an NHL hockey game Saturday, March 2, 2019, in Glendale, Ariz. (AP Photo/Ross D. Franklin)

GLENDALE, Ariz. — Opportunity knocked, and the Coyotes have answered.

As the Arizona Coyotes found themselves within a few points of a playoff spot after the All-Star break, it was almost hard to believe. The team was (and still is) missing key players due to injury, but a wide-open Western Conference Wild Card race has made things interesting late in the season.

With just a little over a month to go now, the Coyotes won their sixth game in a row on Saturday by beating the Detroit Red Wings, 3-1. It’s the first time since February of 2012 that Arizona has won six straight. The team reached the Western Conference Finals that year.

The win vaulted the Coyotes into the second wild card spot, but they may not keep it for long; a loss by the Minnesota Wild on Saturday night would be required for Arizona to keep its playoff status through Sunday morning. At the time of this publishing, the Wild were leading the Calgary Flames.

A Minnesota win puts Arizona one point back.

“It feels good, but it’s not rewarding yet,” forward Vinnie Hinostroza said. “For myself, I don’t like to look at the standings. I like to just keep going. I know where we’re at, we’re in a tight battle here. The more we think about what other teams are doing, the less we’re focused on ourselves. So, I think it’s important for us to just keep this thing going and hopefully be there at the end.”

But either way, it’s the right time to be on a win streak. After Saturday’s game, Arizona has 17 games remaining. They’ll need every win they can get to enter the Stanley Cup Playoffs.

“We’re just kind of going out every night and doing our business,” goaltender Darcy Kuemper said. “Games stay pretty level — no peaks and valleys, as cliche as that is. But that’s kind of the recipe for consistency and that’s why we’re having a lot of success here.”

Saturday night’s game was one in which the Coyotes dominated the shots on goal tally 44-23 and Kuemper wasn’t tested extensively. But he did his job well, winning his seventh consecutive appearance. The defense in front of him was — and has been — a big reason why.

“I think that’s why we’re successful right?” defenseman Oliver Ekman-Larsson said. “Kuemper’s playing unbelievable behind us and we believe and we trust in him. So, it’s pretty easy to play in front of him.”

Many teams would be in big trouble without their starting netminder. But Kuemper has been what the Coyotes need, filling in for Antti Raanta and posting a .926 save percentage since Jan. 1 of this year. Saturday night was his 20th win of the season.

“That’s the heartbeat of our team — the goaltending, and obviously our defense,” head coach Rick Tocchet said. “Kuemp’s mindset, since he took the role, I told you guys when we had those meetings, two months ago, he was just a different guy in the since that he knew that, ‘It’s my net.’

“For eight years, he’s been the backup. So, you play, you don’t play — you don’t know if you’re playing. He knows nine out of 10 games, he’s going to play. He’s taken it to a different level. So he’s done a really nice job for us.”

The Coyotes got on the board first with a first-period goal from Josh Archibald, his 10th of the season. It marks the 10th Arizona player to score 10 goals this year.

“It’s huge,” Tocchet said. “We don’t have 30-, 40-goal scorers. I’ll take [it] if we can have 12-, 15-goal scorers, right? For me, it’s on any given night, somebody’s coming up. Arch’ has scored some big goals for us this year.”

Ekman-Larsson followed that up with his ninth goal of the season to make it 2-0 before first intermission. The Red Wings got one back in the second period courtesy of Dylan Larkin for his 27th goal of the year. That’s all Detroit would get.

The Coyotes tacked on one more goal in the third period from Hinostroza, making for his 11th goal of the season and his eighth point in his last six games.

The win was the Coyotes’ ninth in their last 11 tries.

“I’m just honestly, just happy with the win against Detroit,” Tocchet said. “I thought we played well. As a coaching staff, you look at the game overall and I thought we limited their chances. We got some key goals. But right now, I’m not really thinking about the standings, to be honest with you. Just, it was a nice win for us against Detroit.”

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