ARIZONA COYOTES

Coyotes will try to enjoy the moment in season-altering game at Avs

Mar 28, 2019, 4:53 PM
Head coach Rick Tochet of the Arizona Coyotes reacts during the third period of the NHL game agains...
Head coach Rick Tochet of the Arizona Coyotes reacts during the third period of the NHL game against the Colorado Avalanche at Gila River Arena on December 22, 2018 in Glendale, Arizona. The Coyotes defeated the Avalanche 6-4. (Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)
(Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)

It’s the biggest game the franchise will have played in years.

When the Arizona Coyotes face the Colorado Avalanche at the Pepsi Center in Denver on Friday, there will be more playoff implications on that game than there have been for a Coyotes game in a long time. Arizona hasn’t been to the playoffs since their run to the Western Conference Finals in 2011-12, and they control their destiny now to get back.

With five games left, the Coyotes are guaranteed to secure a playoff spot if they win the rest of the games on their schedule in regulation. Beating Colorado and Minnesota in regulation in their next two games, followed by wins versus Los Angeles, at Vegas and versus Winnipeg would send Arizona to the Stanley Cup Playoffs. And of course, they could still get into the playoffs by doing even less than all of that, depending on what the Avs and Wild do.

“It is the best time of the year right now,” forward Derek Stepan said. “It’s so much fun to play in these games, and it’s going to be a big one.”

But this next game could decide their season. So what? Just another game, right?

“A couple of things to adjust to Colorado,” Tocchet said. “A little more individual [meetings], speaking to a couple guys more than usual. But I try to keep everything pretty well normal, regardless of how big the game is. The players know how big the game is. They know how to prepare.

“Obviously we want to give them the right information. And there’s some players, you know, that may be little antsy and a little bit of pressure, so you want to make sure you spend a little more time with those type guys. But pretty normal game day routine.”

According to NHL Fantasy, the Coyotes have the 11th-easiest remaining schedule in the NHL, although with such a small sample (five games) that average is brought down by the fact that they’ll play the LA Kings, the second-worst team in the league. By comparison, the Avs have the eighth-hardest schedule and the Wild have the fourth-hardest schedule.

That’s good news for Arizona.

But the Coyotes have to get through Colorado first, and they’ll do so by trying to stay loose and enjoy the intensity of the moment they’re in.

“We haven’t had this in seven years,” captain Oliver Ekman-Larsson said. “So every time you get to the rink now, you smile and you know what’s ahead of you. It’s just a lot of fun and it’s easier to come to the rink and work hard.”

The mood around a team certainly improves when that team is successful. But the remaining games down the stretch may not be as fun if Arizona loses on Friday.

Young players who haven’t been in this position before will have to adjust quickly to the pressure.

“We’re going to have a lot of guys that are new to it, they’ll learn a lot, they’ll have to learn quickly,” Stepan said. “That’s kind of how you get better at it. It’s how you gain experience, too, is just being in them. The guys that have been around, the guys that have even won, they can give as much advice and ‘oorah’ stuff as possible, but you’ve just got to play in one to really know what it’s like.”

As inexperienced as the Coyotes may be to pressure situations, though, they’ve come a long way. Last season, Arizona was well out of the playoff hunt by this point in the year. This season, the Coyotes have stayed in the playoff chase all the way to the end. They recently added fuel to their playoff hopes by beating Chicago in a nailbiter 1-0 game.

“Well, what I’ve noticed since the beginning of last year — obviously a lot of games between that — is being able to play under pressure, to lock down a 1-0 game, to be able to come back this year from three goals, from two goals,” Tocchet said. “Those are the elements of a team that has character.”

Part of the progress has been attributed to Tocchet himself.

“He’s done an excellent job of getting the group ready to play each night,” Stepan said of Tocchet. “Game plans, focusing in on certain things — but he does a really good job of not doing too much. I think that’s the biggest key. We’ve had a younger group, and sometimes less is more with him, and he’s done a good job of giving them information at times when it’s the right time, and when it’s starting to become system overload, he backs off and kind of coaches them on how to balance it all.”

Catch the game on ESPN 620 AM at 6 p.m.

“I know it’s a lot of pressure on Friday,” Tocchet said. “But all the stuff that they’ve done those 14 months has got them to this position, so don’t change it.”

“We’re looking at it as just try to have some fun, put our system together and work hard,” Stepan said. “It’s something that we’ve worked really hard to build an identity with and try to enjoy ourselves. It’s going to be a high-intensity game. Anybody from the outside can see how important the two points are, and that’s what makes it a lot of fun.”

AVS RUNDOWN

–Colorado owns a 18-14-6 home record (.553 point percentage), while Arizona has a .500 point percentage on the road.

–The Avalanche have three players with more than 30 goals on the season (Nathan MacKinnon has 38, Mikko Rantanen has 31, Gabriel Landeskog has 33 but has not played since March 7). Only five other teams in the NHL have three 30+ goal scorers on their team.

–Landeskog, who has been out because of injury, could play on Friday for the first time since getting hurt, The Athletic’s Ryan S. Clark reported.

–Colorado played on Wednesday against Vegas and won 4-3.

–The Avalanche’s 22.1 percent power play is the seventh-best mark in the NHL. Their 77.9 penalty kill percentage is 26th in the league.

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